Drought often grips Ethiopia, but the latest stretch of dry months broken only by sparse rains has pushed many herders in several regions of the country to the brink of survival.
In April, the Ethiopian government announced that 2.18 million people now need emergency food assistance. Citing the toll water shortages have taken on crops and pastureland, Ethiopia has asked donors for $67.7 million in aid to help it meet the nutritional needs of people in six of the country's nine states, as well as needs for emergency water provision, animal care, and seeds. The government has also said an additional 947,383 people would have their emergency needs met through Ethiopia's existing safety net.
Oxfam and the local groups with which it partners are responding to the crisis in the Somali and Oromia regions through a multi-pronged approach which not only addresses the immediate requirements families have for water, but also provides some help to reduce the risk of hardship during the next water shortage.
Signs of trouble
In Ethiopia, the daily chore of fetching water usually falls to women and children. In drought situations, when local sources such as shallow ponds or wells dry up, the trek for this essential resource becomes even more grueling.
The Liben Pastoralist Development Association, an Oxfam partner working in the southern part of the country, realized how acute the water shortage had become when it began receiving reports of women, some of them pregnant, walking more than 18 miles from their villages to the nearest water point. Laden with 20-liter jugs of water, some of those women miscarried. Others delivered their babies along the road.
In one part of the Somali region, Oxfam learned that people were selling jerricans of water for 30 birr, or about $3.20—a small fortune in a country where poverty is widespread. Some private businesses had even started importing water from Hargessa in Somaliland.
An assessment team that traveled to the Borena zone in southern Ethiopia reported in March that more than 17,000 animals had died since January in the 11 districts it visited. Herding families in the area depend on those animals—cows, goats, sheep, camels, donkeys—not only for food but also as a critical source of income. The team found that drought had prompted the closing of 29 schools in that area because there was no water for the students. And local officials told team members that many elderly residents were showing signs of malnutrition—a possible indication that the Borena people were using one of their traditional coping strategies. In their culture, the first priority of women during food shortages is to invest in the youngest generation: children eat before their elders do.
Ways of coping
Families in these dry pastoral areas have developed a number of ways to cope with recurrent drought. Some of them have been able to keep reserves of hay on hand for their animals when the pasture dries up. Sometimes, people slaughter their cows and goats and use the meat to help feed their families. When they can, they hunt for wood to sell or to turn into charcoal. If families lose their entire herds, other families contribute animals to get a new herd started.
But over the years, the persistent crises have depleted the assets of many people and exhausted their ability to cope. For herders, their traditional means of managing are also running headlong into modern realities. For instance, the populations of both people and their animals are growing. The allocation of communal grazing areas to private investors and a system of regionalization is limiting the amount of land herders can have access to. And bush, once burned off by fires that have since been banned, continues to encroach on valuable pastureland.
Consequences and Response
One of the consequences of the current crisis is a plunge in the value of animals. Without enough water or pasture they become sick, and many die. The Gayo Pastoralist Development Initiative, an Oxfam partner, reports that the drop in value of livestock has been extreme in districts such as Dire and Dillo in the Borena zone.
And herders are facing a double hit. As they are earn less for their animals, they are simultaneously confronted with spiraling costs for grain—a food staple. Gayo notes that grain prices have jumped by almost 100 percent in some districts.
To help ease some of the severe hardships caused by the drought, Oxfam is working with four local groups to distribute water, provide needy animals with feed and veterinary care, and rehabilitate a series of local ponds so they can provide water in the future.
Water trucking and animal fodder
With support from Oxfam, the Liben Pastoralist Development Initiative's plans have called for providing drinking water to 6,000 people in two areas in the Liben District of the Oromia region's Guji Zone. The water is being trucked in from wells about 28 miles away and stored in four large tanks—and providing enough to allow each person about 4 gallons a day.
The Liben group is also transporting hay and a wheat-bran feed into the region to help shore up the strength of the animals on which people depend. But in an indication of how challenging it can be to work in remote areas, the nearest place Liben can find the necessary fodder is Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's capital, more than 370 miles to the north.
In the Dillo and Dhas districts of the Borena Zone, Action for Development is restoring three wells that typically serve 4,000 to 5,000 head of livestock each day. But because of the drought and shrinking water supplies elsewhere, the number of animals relying on water from these sources could double. The plan calls for the purchase of generators and sub pumps to get these wells running at maximum efficiency.
Like the Liben group, Action for Development is also trucking water in to Dillo and Dhas to help more than 5,000 people with access to a clean supply. The trucks are transporting the water from wells up to 34 miles away.
An estimated 13,500 people and 2,500 head of cattle will benefit from a series of projects the Gayo Pastoralist Development Initiative is also carrying out with Oxfam's help, including the restoration of two ponds in the Borena zone. Ponds provide one of the central sources of water for animals in the area, but during long dry spells they dry up, especially if silt has made them shallow.
By hiring local people to deepen the ponds, Gayo is able to provide families with an important source of income while also helping them to increase the holding capacity of these critical water sources.
"Rehabilitation of ponds during the dry season tremendously increases their capacities and enables them to serve for a longer period of time during drought," said Gayo in its grant application to Oxfam. Gayo pointed to its successes with three ponds in the Moyale area during the 2006 drought.
"The three ponds rehabilitated in response to the drought have still enough water and serve the community at the moment," Gayo said.