Ethiopian Drought and the Future of African Pastoralism

With drought devastating parts of southern Ethiopia, Ethiopia’s government and the UN recently called on international donors to help provide $227 million in aid that will go to feeding 2.8 million people. As VOA writes, there is good news and bad in this announcement – good news in that “the number of Ethiopians in danger has dropped from 5.2 million a year ago,” bad news in that the drought may put more people in need of food relief as 2011 wears on. In the long term, Ethiopia’s problems intersect with wider concerns about the future of African pastoralism. As recurring droughts put pressure on African herders from Mauritania to Somalia, urbanization, conflict, and poverty will bring social change to many African societies. What happens in the physical landscape, in other words, affects the political landscape.

Oromiya Region, Ethiopia by Andrew Heavens

IRIN reports that the areas in Ethiopia that need aid are pastoralist regions where rains have failed. Because pastoralists are nomadic, political and ecological problems in the region intersect, making Ethiopia’s problems Kenya’s and Somalia’s, and vice versa:

In [the] Somali, Oromiya and Southern regions [of Ethiopia], the near complete failure of the October-December rains, has depleted about 80 percent of traditional water sources, which normally cover 80 percent of water needs in pastoral areas, said the Famine Early Warning Systems Network.

In many of these areas, pasture availability has become limited, triggering early migration of livestock to the dry season pasture reserve areas. “The continued influx of pastoral communities from central Somalia, and northeastern and northern Kenya into neighboring zones of… Somali… and… Oromiya regions has been reported,” the network noted.

Ethiopia’s domestic politics also come into play with regard to pastoralist communities.

The government report indicates almost 40 percent of those nutritionally at risk are in the Somali region, home to less than six percent of the country’s population. Ethiopian troops are engaged in a counter-insurgency operation there against indigenous rebels of the Ogaden National Liberation Force.

The group, in e-mail messages, has accused the government of ethnic cleansing and blocking food aid deliveries to rebel-held areas.  The government strongly denies the claims and says the rebel movement is dying, but restricts access to donor groups trying to monitor aid distribution.

State Minister Mitiku says the area of restricted movement includes only a few districts, known as woredas.


But aid community representatives are pushing for greater access to the insurgency zone.  U.N. aid coordinator Owusu says local officials often block access to humanitarian workers even in a usually quiet woreda.

Ethiopia’s situation is unique in some respects, but other countries will face equally intense political struggles involving pastoralists as droughts and desertification send nomads across borders or into new regions. Pieter Tesch predicted last year that the new border between North and South Sudan “will be as meaningless to the cattle pastoralists and other nomadic ethnic groups as the other borders created during the imperial conquest of Africa and the subsequent decolonisation decades later.” Problems in Sudan’s Abyei region – which may end up joining the South or remaining with the North – are largely related to the conflicting political demands of pastoralists and farmers. In Nigeria, meanwhile, desertification is pushing Muslim Fulani herdsmen southward into areas like Plateau State, a site of repeated clashes between nomads and farmers. The policy challenges arising from pastoralists’ suffering are serious and growing.

If you’re interested in learning more about this topic, background materials are available here, here, and here.


3 thoughts on “Ethiopian Drought and the Future of African Pastoralism

  1. I think this will put more impetus to Ethiopia’s desire for a larger share of the Nile’s water. Sudan has largely sided with Egypt but it will be interesting to see who the newly independent South Sudan will side with. My guess is that they will side with Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda in demanding more water for upstream countries.

  2. It is very sever but the government of Ethiopia could not solve the problem, the Government of Ethiopia is the only concerned body responsible for the death of our people.

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