The nomads of Ethiopia face a terrible drought

In this month of April, theoretically one of the wettest of the year, the air is hot and dry and the earth dusty and sterile. Many of the animals of some 200 semi-nomadic families in the village died: “Those who said 300 goats before the drought were left with only 50 to 60, in some (…) none survived”explains one of the villagers, Hussein Habil, 52.

Since the end of 2020, here, as in other southern regions of the country, in neighboring Somalia or in Kenya, it has not rained much. In Ethiopia, this humanitarian disaster is on top of that caused in the north by the conflict in the Tigray region. The United Nations Office for Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimates that between 5.5 and 6.5 million people (or between 5 and 6% of the population) in Ethiopia are severely food insecure due to drought. .

According to Ocha, the current drought has killed nearly 1.5 million head of cattle in this country, including nearly two-thirds in the Somali region. “and the physical conditions of the surviving animals have seriously deteriorated, decreasing their market value”. For the nomadic or semi-nomadic populations of this arid and hostile region, livestock provides food and income, but it also constitutes all their savings.

In Ethiopia, it is estimated that between 5 and 6% of the population is severely food insecure due to drought.

“We were pure nomads before this drought: we depended on animals for meat, milk and sold them”remembers Tarik Mohamed, 50, a farmer of Hargududo, located about fifty kilometers from Gode, the big city in the administrative area of ​​Shabelle. “But these days, most of us” become sedentary, “there is no future in pastoralism, because there are no more herds”continues embittered, “our nomadic life is over”.

By draining the wells and reducing the pastures, which these Somali shepherds describe as the “worst drought ever” wiped out the cattle, the pillar of their way of life now threatened. And it is a whole society that falls apart: villages that must be left for the city, families that disintegrate, children that are neglected because it is necessary to save what remains of the animals, essential for survival. .

Humpless camels

The alternation of dry and rainy seasons – the short one from March to April, the long one from June to August – has always marked the life of these breeders. “Before this catastrophic drought we survived in case of drought thanks to the remains of pasture left by the previous rains”says Tarik Muhamad.

But none of the last three rainy seasons have been there. And the fourth, expected in March, also seems to want to give up. In the area, “droughts are a cyclical phenomenon (…) but are now increasingly frequent”observes Ali Nur Mohamed, 38, an official of the NGO Save the Children.

In East Africa, “since 2005 the frequency of droughts has doubled, from every six to every three years” And “For 30 years there have been several episodes of prolonged drought, especially in the arid and semi-arid areas of the region”writes the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its latest report.

As early as 2012, a study by the American Development Aid Agency (USAID) found that the southern regions of Ethiopia received 15 to 20% less rain than in the 1970s and that the areas receiving 500 mm of rain per year required for sustainable agriculture and livestock.

The current drought has killed nearly 1.5 million head of cattle in Ethiopia, nearly two-thirds of them in the Somali region.

The current drought has killed nearly 1.5 million head of cattle in Ethiopia, nearly two-thirds of them in the Somali region.

“Now, as shepherds try to recover from a drought, they are hit by a new one.”continues Ali Nur Mohamed, the drought “they are so close that these breeders can’t get up”.

A topic that should be on the menu of the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) which meets in Abidjan from 9 to 20 May. All the ranchers met in the region claim to have lost between 80% and 100% of their livestock. The few herds, cows or goats, crossed here and there, are very thin. Many dromedaries have lost their hump, a food supply.

Five days of walking

To feed themselves, many shepherds have moved to the camps that displaced by drought have raised near the localities. Like in Adlale, not far from Gode, where, in the morning light, the colored veils of dozens of women come to ask for emergency food aid distributed by the World Food Program (WFP). .

“All our animals died due to drought” And “we walked five days to come” here, says Habiba Hassan Khadid, 47, a mother of ten children, who raised cows and camels. A mother of seven, Ahado Jees Hussein, 45, joined Adlale carrying her disabled 15-year-old son on her back. “I had 100 goats, they all died (…) I came with nothing. I had three pack donkeys, but they all died”says this widow who says she doesn’t have “never experienced such a drought”.

Together with 2,700 other families, the two women live in the Farburo 2 camp, set up three months ago. Small branch huts support a patchwork of fabrics that provide saving shade at a temperature of around 40 ° C.

“Living conditions are alarming, most families live on what they receive from relatives” or local residents, “says camp coordinator Ali Mohamed Ali. He is also pessimistic: “Nomadic farming cannot continue to exist with the recurrence of the drought”.

“The wells are empty”

“Before the drought”so was Halima Harbi, a 40-year-old mother of nine “part of families who live well”, “those who have had enough” live properly, in a region where luxury is unknown. “Now we have nothing”she says, “I used my last donkey to transport my family here, but (…) it died on the way. We didn’t bring anything – no crockery or kitchen utensils … – we just dragged our children “.

Falis Hassen's son has been suffering for two months from canker sores and liver, which prevent him from breastfeeding.

Falis Hassen’s son has been suffering for two months from canker sores and liver, which prevent him from breastfeeding.

In his small hut, Abdi Kabe Adan, a strong and proud 50-year-old shepherd, shouts without restraint: “None of our animals were spared”. “It used to rain elsewhere in the region, so we moved our animals to irrigated pastures, even though it took several days. But this time the drought is everywhere.” And “the wells are empty”.

“I don’t think it’s possible that our way of life will continue. I’ve seen goats eat their excrement, camels eat other camels. I’ve never seen that in my life.”hiccup.

There are few men in the camp. Some stayed with the last of the cattle, looking for a miraculous pasture. Many have left in search of work in the city. Others have fled, unable to deal with the shame or questions of wives worried about the future. Because the drought has also damaged the social organization of these communities.

“Before, men had the task of milking the cows”to lead herds to pastures, “buying food and goods for the family: these roles have disappeared with our livestock”explains Halima Harbi. Families are exploding and solidarity has given way to rivalries. “When the water trucks arrive, the old and the most vulnerable get nothing because the competition is tough”he complains.


Children pay the highest price: overwhelmed by problems, parents “they don’t even have time to take care of themselves, to watch over their offspring”explains Ali Nur Mohamed of Save The Children. “Normally a mother takes care of her children. We understand the gravity, the extent of the problems, which are such as to make her forget to take her child to the hospital (…) or prevent him from doing so., Because she is monopolized by her other children or committed to save his cattle “He explains.

In particular, the NGO carries out community tours, identifies children in danger and transports them to health facilities, such as the Gode hospital. There, in the suffocating atmosphere of the nutritional unit room, on iron beds, the mothers wave with their veils – which also chase away flies – a dozen very thin children.

“When the water trucks arrive, the old and the most vulnerable get nothing because the competition is tough.”

In the region, usually, “Our children are on the verge of malnutrition, so at the slightest disease they fall into malnutrition”, observes the hospital director, Dr. Mahamed Shafi Nur. Most children are treated on an outpatient basis with nourishing, ready-to-eat peanut-based pastes. Those suffering from complications – about 15% – are hospitalized.

“Families are disorganized”Sometimes “the father went far in search of food” for cattle, “the mother finds herself alone with so many children. Consequently (the children) arrive late” to the hospital “and with complications”explains Dr. Mahamad Abdi Omar, the institute’s pediatrician.

terrible choices

Samiya, the child of Rokiya Adan Mahad, 39, had been suffering from diarrhea and vomiting for a week when he finally brought her.

Falis Hassen’s son has been suffering for two months from canker sores and liver, which prevent him from breastfeeding. “We are busy looking for grazing and water for livestock”explains this 38-year-old woman who came without telling her husband: “He wouldn’t have left me, there’s so much to do”. Abdullahi Gorane’s son, hair bleached from malnutrition, had been suffering from diarrhea and vomiting for weeks.

“I took care of the cattle, I didn’t have time for my son”tells this 30-year-old man – the only father present – who decided when the drought got the better of his flock: he lost two of his five camels, 80% of his goats and 100% of his cows.

Lack of contraception and distancing between births, exclusive breastfeeding and poor sanitation explain the chronic malnutrition of children, says Ahmed Nur, a health worker at the Kelafo health center 100 km from Gode.

But the situation was largely “aggravated” from drought e “every month the number of malnourished children increases”. Like Ayan Ibrahim Haroun, parents sometimes face terrible choices: caring for your child means running the risk of losing livestock.

Cough, edema on the body (a possible symptom of severe malnutrition): Sabirin Abdi, her two-year-old daughter, had already been sick for a month when this breeder, who improves the ordinary with few animals, decided to bring to Kelafo. “We have not harvested this year”explains, “I had ten goats,” four died in the 11 days I was in the hospital “ with Sabirin.

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