Drought in Ethiopia tests people’s resilience to climate extremes

  • By Roop Singh (Climate Centre), Amanuel Abraha (ENDA Energy), Farm Africa
  • 30/10/2015

A village elder with cattle in the Afar region/ Farm Africa

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This is part 2 of a series, for the Reality of Resilience project, looking at the 2015 drought in Ethiopia. Part 1 examined the scale and magnitude of the erratic rains that led to this drought or what we call “extreme climate event”. You can read part 1 here

The southern area of the Afar region has been one of the most consistently dry areas of Ethiopia this year. People in Afar are particularly vulnerable to extremely dry conditions because their livelihoods depend on the rains to produce lush pasture for grazing their animals.

To get a better sense of how the population is faring during this drought, we interviewed people from southern Afar and asked them who was impacted by the extreme dryness, and who wasn’t. Most importantly, we asked them why some are more affected than others.

Pastoralist livelihoods

Pastoralism is the main source of survival and livelihood in the southern Afar region. Local agricultural extension agents report that pastoralists who own camels have been better off during the drought, since camels can survive for longer without water, and are able to travel long distances.

Camels are typically taken care of by men, giving them greater mobility to leave their families in search of water and pastures. Women, children and the elderly are often left behind to make do with what is nearby.

Women stay at home to take care of children and smaller ruminant animals such as goats and cows. These animals cannot travel long distances, so women try to find water and feed nearby, an increasingly difficult task this year because nearby watering holes and grasses have dried up.

As an alternative source of income during the drought, women and children work on commercial farms. In addition to earning income as laborers, they are able to cut grasses, edible weeds, and crop residues from in and around the farm and carry them to their animals as feed. This comes at a cost because cut and carry system is highly labor-intensive and places an additional burden women and children.

Women also make handicrafts, and collect and sell firewood as additional sources of income when their animals are not productive.

Mr. Tamrat Alemu, an agriculture extension agent from the Afar region explained that livestock such as sheep, goats, cows, oxen and donkeys have been losing weight and some deaths were reported at the end of July. FewsNet, the international source for food security information, painted a similar picture stating that the “incredibly dry conditions have led to poor livestock body conditions and very low livestock production . . . unusual livestock deaths and unseasonal livestock migration continue.”

Livestock prices have also plummeted during the drought. Mr. Alemu gave an example in which an ox was sold for only 200 Birr, even though normal prices range from 3000 to 4000 Birr. Similarly, during discussions with relevant regional bureaus in Samara which is in northeast Afar, it was reported that the price of a goat normally sold at around 1000 Birr around September during normal season has now fallen to less than 100 Birr. That means pastoralists who sell their animals to survive were only receiving about 5-10% of the normal price.

Farm Africa’s BRACED project plans to respond to the reduced pasture for livestock by working to increase market-based access to affordable local sugarcane byproducts and other fodder / Multi Nutrient Blocks (MNB) as an alternative source of animal feed for drought-affected pastoralist communities in Afar region.

Agro-pastoralists and commercial farmers

Agro-pastoralism is relatively new and not widely practiced in the Afar region. The few agro-pastoralists that do exist grow crops using traditional irrigation systems, while the commercial farmers use modern irrigation systems.

All land users depend on the Awash River, the only perennial river in the Afar Region, for irrigation. Because of the reduced and interrupted rainfall in the upstream highlands, the river levels have been drastically lower this year. This has impacted the farms of agro-pastoralists because they have limited access to pumps for lifting water from the base flow of the Awash River, meaning that the water did not reach their farmlands this year.

While agro-pastoralism is often cited as a diversified and more resilient livelihood to climate shocks, during this drought, the irrigation systems failed too easily to provide agro-pastoralists with benefits from growing food or grasses for their herds.

In contrast, the wealthier commercial farmers in the region were relatively unaffected by the drought because they had the money and know-how to plant drought-tolerant crops and fiber crops. They also had access to improved technology in the form of pumps that continued to bring water to their farms despite the low river levels.

As reported by an extension agent, merchants were another small group in this region who were almost completely unaffected by the drought, and perhaps is an example of diversifying economic activity to be less reliant on the rains.

Vulnerability in context

By examining how different communities are faring during this drought we can learn about the multiple climate and non-climate stressors that determine the vulnerability of people in the Afar region.

For example, land is usually set aside by clan leaders near floodplains for farming, giving individuals in the community sanctioned control over the land. However, after a few years of poor harvest on this land, a leader will sell it to commercial investors, thereby taking away land from many people.

While this may provide increased and diversified income to some individuals, Erikson and Marin, point out that this defacto privatization of community land undermines the adaptive capacity of pastoralist communities as a whole who lose access to key drought grazing resources to the growth of private commercial farming (2011).

The practice of selling firewood as a coping mechanism during drought is also complicated by the fact that it can lead to deterioration of the very rangelands that pastoralists depend on for long-term sustainability.

Therefore, it’s important to consider the complex ways individual and community adaptation measures on different timescales when strengthening resilience to climate extremes.

How severely a climate shock impacts people is dependent on a community’s anticipatory, absorptive, and adaptive capacity, which BRACED projects are working to strengthen. The next part of this series will discuss resilience strategies and projects that are helping to build these capacities and reducing impacts of this drought on Ethiopians.

The findings and conclusions detailed in this blog are those of the author(s) alone and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Red Cross Red Crescent Climate Centre, the IFRC or its National Societies. The blog and any links it may contain are offered to stimulate discussion and thinking on the humanitarian impacts of climate change and variability.

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Braced or its partners.

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