It is not just that another drought has seized the Horn of Africa, but it is also devastating the livestock herders in these already dry lands while threatening the way of life for many Ethiopians. In Ethiopia, which unlike neighboring Somalia or South Sudan has a strong, and functioning government, the emergency effort has kept people alive. Authorities and aid agencies are trying to get beyond the immediate humanitarian response and encourage a shift to livelihoods less vulnerable to drought and climate shocks.
An estimated 450,000 people in the southeastern Somali region have abandoned their nomadic lifestyle and retreated to camps to receive food aid in recent months, according to the International Organization for Migration. It was just last year that a drought caused by the El Niño warming phenomenon in the Pacific baked Ethiopia’s fertile highlands in the north and center of the country and left more than 10 million people needing food aid. This year, temperature changes in the Indian Ocean have caused a drought in the south and east of the country, a much more arid region populated by shepherds and their flocks. More than 5 million people live in Ethiopia’s Somali region, of whom about 40 percent are pastoralists engaged in raising animals, according to the last census. Last year, the Ethiopian government scraped together USD700 million of its own funds, combined with nearly a billion dollars in international assistance, to fight the drought. For this year’s crisis, nowhere near the same funding is available, as international donors grapple with severe hunger crises in two neighboring war-torn nations — Somalia and South Sudan — and, farther afield, in Nigeria and Yemen.
It certainly is not shaping up to be an easy year for Ethiopia, however, with the latest humanitarian assessment indicating that 7.8 million people need food aid at a cost of nearly USD1 billion. The Somali region was also battered by severe droughts in 2008 and 2011. With aid less certain, there is more urgency to work on long-term efforts to address the country’s needs. The man with the unenviable task of heading up Ethiopia’s disaster response is Mitiku Kassa, head of a commission on national disasters, and he said last-minute donations from Britain, the United States, and the European Union should secure food aid to this blighted region until the autumn. Local officials have been trying to show community elders examples of farms where people have made the transition. From the air, along the area’s main river, a visitor can see a few irrigated fields of corn and other crops glowing green amid the beige wasteland of sand.
For people who have lived only one way for generations, becoming something else can be daunting. Drought, however, can be a persuasive force. Under Ethiopia’s previous Marxist regime, inhabitants of drought-stricken regions were sometimes forcibly relocated to new areas and told to farm — often with disastrous results. Current efforts rely on people being ready for a change. According to Michael Jacobs, who heads a U.S. government-funded aid program called PRIME to develop the livestock sector, in these times of hardship many are looking for new livelihoods. Rather than promoting farming, Jacob’s program works on training people in other professions, such as carpentry, welding, and mechanics, more suited to the growing urban environments of these regions. At the same time, the program works on modernizing the country’s livestock sector while involving fewer people. Jacobs explained that although raising animals is always going to be part of Ethiopian culture, it is going to look very different in the future.