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Ethiopia's Somali Region faces chronic drought

Maria Gerth-Niculescu
September 23, 2019

This year the 'belg' rainy season once again failed to bring much needed relief to the drought-striken region. Pastoral communities say they fear for the future of their livelihoods as experts blame climate change.

A young girl in the village of Lasdenkeyre in Ethiopia's Somali region with her goats
Image: DW/M. Gerth-Niculescu

Three times a day, Sara Saban walks under the burning sun to fetch water for her family. Close to her village in the center of Ethiopia's Somali Region, women, children and men line up in front of the only available well within walking distance. Their donkeys patiently wait as they fill their yellow jerry cans with water. A few meters away, others dig a hole in the dried-out riverbed to collect what little murky water they can find.

"The underground water is very limited because we are facing a drought," Sara, a mother of ten, told DW. "The water quality is also very bad, so sometimes we suffer from stomach-related illnesses."

Livestock dwindling

The Somali Region has suffered from chronic drought for several years, with the worst stretch recorded in 2016, from which many households have yet to recover. This year the short rainy season known as the 'belg', which typically lasts from March to May, once again failed to provide much-anticipated ground water. The livestock have already started to die.

In a dried out riverbed, people are trying to dig and find the little underground water that is left
After another failed rainy season, people have resorted to digging for underground water in dried-out riverbedsImage: DW/M. Gerth-Niculescu

This has had catastrophic consequences for the pastoral communities which make up the majority of the Somali population. They rely on cattle and other farm mammals for their livelihood: Selling them at the market, drinking their milk and eating their meat.

Since the beginning of the year, Sara lost one cow, 20 goats and five sheep. "It rained for only five days, and they were very small showers, so the grass did not grow enough to feed the livestock," she explains.

Assistance not always enough

To counter the effects of the drought, the Ethiopian government has to rely of the help of NGO's and the United Nations (UN). The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) recently distributed livestock medicine and feed to 79,000 households. But it's still not enough for everybody. 

"We don't have the capacity to respond [to drought] at the government level," Tahir Beder Farah, the livestock officer for the Lasdenkeyre district, told DW. "We have our own resources but the drought impact is huge and the feed price is very high. So although we have our own [response] plan, that plan is not enough for our community."

During prolonged periods of drought, animals become more vulnerable to diseases. Herds mingle more as water sources are scarce, increasing the risk of contagion. Swift and adequate treatment of their livestock becomes a priority for farmers.

Ahmed Mohammed, FAO Somali Region field coordinator and livestock officer
Ahmed Mohammed, the FAO's Somali Region field coordinator and livestock officer, says protecting livestock is a priority during periods of extended droughtImage: DW/M. Gerth-Niculescu

"Cattle are the most vulnerable to drought, followed by sheep and goats," says Ahmed Mohammed, FAO's Somali Region field coordinator. "If we don't protect the core breeding animals at this stage of the drought, this will lead to mass mortality of animals and the families will be stripped of their livelihood assets. Rebuilding these lost livelihoods later on will be an enormous task, so it is less expensive and more efficient to protect and save livelihoods before they are lost."

According to Tahir Beder Farah, the FAO's response was delayed by a month, which may explain why livestock mortality was higher than expected. But despite the assistance, tens of thousands of households still have not received adequate support, making them vulnerable to malnourishment and displacement. 

However, those households who did receive emergency aid have already experienced improvements in their living conditions. After receiving livestock feed at the beginning of the month, Mahaba Ibrahim, a mother of eight, felt relieved when she was able to resume milking her two cows. "Before, our cows had no milk," she told DW. "But now we are able to get milk for our children and the cattle's condition is improving."

A group of woman fetch water out of a well in Ethiopia's drought-stricken Somali region
A group of women use donkeys to help them fetch what little water they can out of the nearest wellImage: DW/M. Gerth-Niculescu

Persistent drought linked to climate change

The feed is supposed to last at least three months. However, families are still worried that the rainy season will continue to fail in the years ahead. This fear has been reinforced by climate experts, who say they have noticed a correlation between recurring droughts in the region and climate change.

"Our research has strongly suggested that climate change has contributed to this decline [in rainfall]," research geographer Chris Funk from the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET) told DW. "FEWS NET research has advanced a clear causal explanation linking warming in the Western Pacific to increased rainfall near Indonesia and disruptions in the East African long rains."

Read more: Water and climate change: 'Era of stable abundance is over'

Mahaba Ibrahim sits in front of her house with her baby in Ethiopia
Mahaba Ibrahim says she and he young family have benefited from assistance. But she is still worried about future rainy seasonsImage: DW/M. Gerth-Niculescu

According to Funk, this trend is likely to continue in the years ahead. "The data suggests we should assume that the current increase in drought frequencies will persist," he explains. "This is a little less scary than assuming that the trend will continue, but it's still pretty grim. Just assuming [drought will persist] in Ethiopia suggests we will likely see about six poor seasons over the next ten years."

In the Somali Region, up to 350,000 people have already been displaced from their home due to climate-related factors. This number is likely to increase in the coming years.

In the meantime, Mahaba says she is praying for heavy rains in October, which will provide the pastoral communities with much-needed relief.


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