Responding to the reality of the East Africa drought

By Pascale Palmer
October 1, 2011

Southern Ethiopia is being devastated by a drought that has taken the lives of more than 300,000 livestock, threatening the future of the pastoralist communities who rely on them.

Last week I headed out to meet families in the region of Borana who have been hit time and time again by failed rains that refuse to give the communities enough breathing space to recover.

In Sarite village in the Borana area of southern Ethiopia, the land is dry and the earth powder-paint red. In amongst the spines of the encroaching acacia bushes the carcasses of cattle lie desiccating in the hot sun. The area has had no substantial rain since March last year. This means pastureland cannot regenerate and water sources are not recharged.

The drought affecting Borana is the same one reaching out over the Horn and East Africa region and has been described by the United Nations as the worst in 60 years. The Ethiopian government has confirmed that 4.5 million of its citizens are in need of help.

Dide Doyo is a pastoralist from Teltele in Borana. He and his family have been trying to cope with the drought which is slowly stripping them of their ability to survive. He said: “I had eight cattle last year and when the drought hit my village I went looking for grazing. It took me three days to get there. One of my cattle died two days after we got there. One was pregnant and died the following day. Seven of them died one after the other. When my cattle died I deeply got hurt, but a man cannot get mad at God. There is nothing I can do.”

Dide Doyo’s story is a common one and most pastoralists I met in Borana told of losing up to half their herd to the drought. In the past 18 months two major rains have failed, leaving grasslands unable to regenerate sufficiently to sustain the large number of livestock owned by the local communities. And as if to cruelly compound this struggle, hardy acacia bushes are invading the grasslands, pushing out even those grasses able to resist the drought. In response to the loss of good grazing land, pastoralists have been travelling with their herds from one place to another searching for grassland and water.

I spoke to Dejene Fikre who coordinates CAFOD’s joint drought response project in Borana. He said: “The communities are worrying a lot because there is a huge fear that the drought situation will get worse as the resources have already been used up and the next rain season is far away.

“Due to mass livestock migration, huge numbers of livestock are crowding small pockets of the Borana range land causing degradation of areas.”

Elema Wario is 60 years old has lived near Sarite for a decade. She has 10 children and nine grandchildren. I met Elema the day she had walked to collect water at ponds cleared out and repaired in partnership with CAFOD in Sarite. As part of the project local communities were paid to help clear silt from the ponds – one for drinking water and one for livestock. In this way the communities gain wages to buy food and have ponds that can capture and hold water when the rains come.

Elema said: “There is no relief from this drought and we are losing all our livestock. I have lost nearly all of mine. This water hole has made a difference, now we don’t have to travel so far for water and our livestock can come to drink and we can collect water for ourselves. It is a great benefit for our households and for weak animals that can’t travel.

“But there are more problems. The price of cattle has become good but you can’t buy anything with the money because everything else has gone up too. It is very hard. The grain price has increased more than the cattle price. If I sell one cow, I can buy enough grain to last only one month.”

The communities in Borana are praying that the seasonal October rains will fall this year, but after two failed rains already this year, it is a desperate hope.

Elema added: “If the rains don’t come in October we will expect to lose all of our livestock. They will all die. Without livestock there is no Borana. If there is no livestock the people will not be able to continue, they will die too.”

Since the East Africa drought appeal began, parishes, schools and supporters have given £4.5million direct to CAFOD. In partnership with sister agencies Trocaire and SCIAF, CAFOD is using that money to protect the livelihoods of the people of Borana. The organisation is ensuring people have access to food and have the tools to cope with the present drought, as well as potential future crises.

In Borana, pond and well rehabilitation and water projects have given 20,000 people and 80,000 livestock access to water. 20 water committees have also been trained up to look after their ponds and wells and support knowledge sharing. More than 400 hectares of bush have been reclaimed as grassland by the clearance of acacia trees, offering more than 90,000 weak livestock and calves grazing land during the drought. More than 1400 households have benefited from the establishment of cooperatives that help people earn money from alternative livelihoods, including soap-making and honey production.

Dejene Fikre added: “To the people who have given to CAFOD, first of all thank you for giving attention to Borana - it is important that people give during the crisis times of the drought and we thank you for this. Without people giving there can be no work here in Borana.

“But we mustn’t focus only when the crisis comes, when it is being talked about in the media. There needs to be investment at other times. You must remember that drought is known to these people, it is part of their lives, so they can cope if given help to be prepared. We will save more lives if we can invest in preparedness, so that people are ready for the worse droughts. Please remember this and help us continue this good work.”

This Harvest Fast Day please continue your support for the people of Borana and others affected by the East Africa drought. To give, go to:


© Pascale Palmer is Senior Press Officer (Policy & Campaigns) for CAFOD.

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