In drought-stricken Ethiopia, herders suffer heartache

Wednesday February 01 2023
Drought in Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya

Bele Kalbi Nur walks with his goats in El Gel village, 8 kilometres from the town of K'elafo in Ethiopia on January 12, 2023. The last five rainy seasons since the end of 2020 have failed, triggering the worst drought in four decades in Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya. PHOTO | EDUARDO SOTERAS | AFP



Mohammed Hassan Gureh has made up his mind: he's going to sell the last of his goats and leave his village to find a new life. 

Like many herders in the east of Ethiopia, he has been forced to give up his nomadic existence after seeing his livestock decimated by drought.

The 32-year-old says he can no longer bear seeing his animals die. Out of a herd of 250 goats, only 35 are left. 

And in his village of El Gel, in a corner of the Somali region of Ethiopia not far from the border with Somalia, two-thirds of the animals have been wiped out. 

Gureh, like other nomadic herders across the Horn of Africa, has been waiting desperately for more than two years for rains that have not come. 


Failed rainy seasons

The last five rainy seasons since the end of 2020 have failed, triggering the worst drought in four decades in Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya. 

And the next rainy season, from March to May, is also expected to be below average. 

According to the UN, drought has plunged 12 million people into "acute food insecurity" in Ethiopia alone, where a deadly conflict has also ravaged the north of the country.

More than 4.5 million livestock have died since 2021 and another 30 million "weakened and emaciated" animals are at risk, the UN's humanitarian agency OCHA said in a January 18 report.

Faced grim reality

Gureh waited and prayed, but he had to face the grim reality. "There is no sign of improvement. I think the drought will continue and get worse over time." 

So he has decided to sell his goats before it is too late.

With the small amount of money he will make from a sale, he plans to leave El Gel and head to the nearby town of K'elafo, hoping he will finally be able to support his wife, his four children, his blind father and his crippled mother.

His plans are vague: he will probably try to eke out a living as a small-time trader selling charcoal, firewood or incense.

Start adult education

"I also want to start adult education and develop my skills in order to find employment opportunities," he says.

"It's a very difficult decision to move from a life as a goatherd to a new way of life that I don't know... But I have no other option."

Others are still hoping for a miracle.

Gureh's friend Bele Kalbi Nur has lost 90 percent of his herd, but is holding on to the 10 or so goats he has left. 

"I don't know how to do anything other than be a nomadic shepherd," he says on his return from several hours of walking to graze his animals.

"I am not educated and I do not know how to farm, this is the only way I know to survive."

Has split up family

The 29-year-old has split up his family, entrusting four of his eight children to his mother-in-law, who lives about 30 kilometres (19 miles) away. 

In the Somali region, and throughout south eastern Ethiopia as well as drought-hit areas of northern Kenya and Somalia, tens of thousands of herders are facing the same life-or-death dilemma. 

For generations, they have roamed the arid region during the two annual rainy seasons in search of pasture and water for their animals. 

Goats, cows and camels provided them with milk and meat, and cash when they were sold.

Pastures turned to dust

But since 2016, when the last drought started in the region, there have only been two normal rainy seasons, in 2017 and 2018.

Pastures have turned to dust, wells have dried up, and increasing numbers of nomads are abandoning their self-sufficient, itinerant lives for a sedentary existence relying on humanitarian aid in cities or camps for displaced people known as IDPs. 

"We have around one million IDPs in the Somali region today," 20 percent of them as a result of conflict but 80 percent because of drought, says Abdirizak Ahmed, eastern Ethiopia manager for British charity Save the Children.

"This number keeps on growing."

Suffering in the bush

Those who flee to urban areas can be counted, but others are "suffering in the bush, they don't know where to go to find support or assistance".

Alaso Abdi, who is in her 70s, turned up at the Berley camp for displaced people near the town of Gode after losing her 10 camels and 500 goats.

"In my previous life, I was very happy, I had my children, animals that gave milk and meat. We moved freely from one place to another," she recalls.

Now, she has "nowhere to go".

'Never-ending' crisis

The Somali people have named the drought "Sima" (identical or equal in Somali) because it is hitting everyone in equal measure. 

Throughout the region, there are the same stories of distress, devastated herds and desperate appeals for help.

"The coping mechanism is nearly exhausted," said Save the Children's Ahmed, adding that aid agencies are struggling to deal with the "never-ending" emergency. 

He warned of a catastrophe in the next six months.

In Antalale, about 40 kilometres from K'elafo, the animals have all but disappeared, their parched carcasses littered around the village. 

It is now time to save the people, resident Mahad Astur Kahin pleads.

"People's lives are in danger. The majority have left the village because of starvation, and those remaining have nothing left."