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Ethiopia's pastoralists struggle with harsher weather

by E.G. Woldegebriel
Wednesday, 16 October 2013 13:15 GMT

Men near Dubulke village, in Ethiopia's state of Oromia, extract water from a borehole for themselves and their livestock. THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION/E.G. Woldegebriel

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Changes in livestock, better forest protection and old systems of allocating water may help them adapt to climate change

DUBULKE, Ethiopia (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Dida Gemechu is in his sixth decade, and he has never seen life as tough as it is now.

Gemechu, a pastoralist, relies on cattle for his livelihood in the Borena region of Ethiopia’s largest regional state, Oromia. But increasingly frequent droughts have made it harder to find boreholes to water his livestock.

Pastoralists represent 11 percent of Ethiopia’s more than 80 million people, but they occupy more than 60 percent of the country’s land, mostly in the northeast and southeast, and are especially vulnerable to changing weather patterns.

Gemechu says that the increasing population in the area has caused conflicts with other pastoralists and nearby farmers over grazing land for their cattle, leading them to reduce the size of their herds.

A typical pastoralist family now has 150-200 head of cattle, much fewer than in previous years, while a prominent Borena family might have 500, a reduction by half of previous levels.

While some experts offer advice on ways to adapt, pastoralists are also seeking solutions within their own traditions.

Dida Kampara, head of the Oromia Pastoral Technical and Vocational Education College, says Borena pastoralists do not need to change their livelihoods completely, but must adapt by reducing the size of their herds, even though large herds traditionally have been a marker of status.

They also need to work to keep grazing land clear of underbrush – which has been growing more aggressively as carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere increase – and protect forests, he said.

“There has been an invasion of alien shrubs that have been decimating resources for the natural flora of this semi-arid area,” Kampara said.

The authorities encourage the uprooting of these invasive shrubs to burn for fuel, among other purposes. But some cash-strapped pastoralists have also turned to felling native trees to sell as charcoal to city residents.

Kampara says that forests are especially vital in this area, where there is no river within a radius of 300 km (190 miles). When trees are cut, the soil retains less moisture, and less carbon dioxide is absorbed.

The effects of deforestation tend to be greater for pastoralists, whose dependence on fragile environmental conditions, coupled with their limited diversity of livestock, and few other livelihood options, means they have much more to lose than other communities.


Some Borena pastoralists are attempting to adapt to their changing environment using generations-old customs to manage their herds and natural resources.

The Borena still practise the traditional Gadaa system, complex indigenous social and political rules that govern the strategic interests of the Borena and other clans from the Oromo ethnic group. Even those Borena who now identify themselves as Christian or Muslim use the system for administrative purposes.

“We basically slaughter a cattle near boreholes to show who’s the owner of (the borehole) ... as a way of warding away other communities from sharing the finite resource, or to prevent any kind of deforestation in the area surrounding the water point,” Gemechu said.

The sight of the animal’s blood near the borehole indicates to other pastoralists that the water source has already been claimed. Members of the community who jump the queue for water, or pastoralists who cut trees near boreholes, can be fined a combination of cattle or money, Gemechu added.

The Borena say this method has helped them avoid conflicts and conserve their finite resources as the amount of available range land shrinks and droughts worsen.

The pastoralists also use a rotational grazing system and graze their cattle on enclosed areas during the dry season.

They hope these measures will reduce tensions between clans as well as with other ethnic groups, especially near the Kenyan border, where there is a history of violent conflicts over grazing areas and water points. A conflict with a rival Oromo pastoralist clan, the Gabra, has been particularly severe over the last few years, resulting in the deaths of scores of people.


Kampara, head of the technical college, acknowledges that reducing herd sizes and preserving the natural forest cover of the area will help preserve the pastoralists’ livelihoods, but adds that some things have changed for good.

The Borena used to rear only cattle and sheep, but they have added camels and goats to their herds because of the animals’ resilience and ability to eat plants that can’t be eaten by the other livestock.

Some pastoralists now also plant fast-growing crops such as haricot beans in the one month of the year that sees substantial rainfall.

However, Kamapara believes the most effective means of climate adaptation for the Borena is to find good markets for their livestock and livestock products, and to make use of the area’s other resources.

“Borena cattle are renowned for their quality in Ethiopia, but because of distance from markets have been unable to be a boon for the pastoralists,” Kampara said.  Improved infrastructure would help, he said. He also urged pastoralists to take advantage of the area’s untapped potential to produce tree gum and incense.

Gemechu points out that the Borena’s remoteness from central markets or the port of Djibouti – the main trade gateway for landlocked Ethiopia – makes pastoralists vulnerable to exploitation by local middlemen. He hopes the government will open up markets with northern Kenya so cattle can be traded there.

Meanwhile, Kampara sees signs of Borena pastoralists adapting to changing conditions by moving away from their roots, including building permanent homes in cities, opening bank accounts and showing less reluctance to sell their prized cattle.

E.G. Woldegebriel is a journalist based in Addis Ababa with an interest in environmental issues.     

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