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The remains of a camel
The remains of a camel - severe droughts are battering the livelihoods of nomadsImage: CC / prilfish


July 6, 2010

With their low-carbon nomadic lifestyles, pastoralist communities hardly make a dent in global warming. Yet they've been hit hard by climate change, often leading to catastrophic consequences.


For centuries, pastoralist communities in the arid Ethiopian regions of Borana and Somali have been roaming with their cattle herds in search of grazing land.

But their traditional way of life is threatened by increasingly severe and frequent droughts and shorter rainy periods that have come to mark changing weather patterns in eastern Africa.

In fact, according to a study by aid group CARE this year, climate change has affected nomads like no other group in the world.

Ethiopian shepherds quoted in the study said that earlier, a drought occurred every six to ten years. But now, they said, it takes place almost yearly.

More frequent droughts mean families have less time to recover and restock herds. Water is scarce and often has to be brought from far away. The dry cracked ground erodes more easily; cattle are more susceptible to disease and die, further shrinking the meager income that pastoral tribes rely on.

Climate change thus threatens the very survival of nomads.

40 million nomads affected

Extreme weather fluctuations, droughts, floods, storms, rising temperatures and arid conditions pose a risk to millions of nomads from Ethiopia, Niger, and Mauretania to Kenya and Sudan.

Guenther Schlee from the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Halle(Saale), Germany estimates that there are around 40 million nomads today in the world.

"In Somalia, for instance, the majority of the populations follows this [nomadic] economic model," Schlee, one of Germany's most prominent nomad researchers, said.

Reindeers in wintry northern Sweden
Weather fluctuations are making life difficult for reindeer herders tooImage: picture-alliance/dpa

But it's not just the shepherds and pastoralist tribes of Africa who are bearing the brunt of the alterations in climate. Mild winters with heavy  downpours have also posed major challenges to reindeer herders in northern Finland and Russia.

Grounds, which previously used to regularly freeze, now often turn into swamps with animals and entire herds sinking into the sludge. The vegetation is changing and it's become harder to plan routes and time frames for migration because rivers take longer to freeze over or thaw earlier.

Mongolian nomads struggle to cope

Mongolia is another region where climate change has hit hard and is squeezing nomadic lifestyles. Some 2.7 million people - almost hald of the population in the Central Asian country - make a living from livestock breeding.

Climate change has led to extreme weather - from drought in summer to icy winters. Last winter, massive snow fall and temperatures of minus 40 degrees Celsius (minus 104 degrees Fahrenheit) pushed many nomads into poverty. The International Red Cross estimates that some 4.5 million goats, sheep, camels and horses died of the cold, depriving thousands of nomads of their livelihood.

Whether it's in Ethiopia, Finland or Mongolia, nomads need help to adapt to changing climatic conditions. In Mongolia for instance, a number of aid groups have begun projects to build wells and cisterns to boost storage and availability of water in drought-prone regions as well as initiatives to generate electricity from renewable sources.

But experts say that the key task is to try and bring about change in the social and political conditions that nomads are subject to.

"That's because the problems of nomads certainly don't have to do with climate change alone," Schlee said.

He added that one-sided polices favoring more settled economic models, population growth and the difficulty in getting grazing land often hits nomads harder than climate change.

A nomad with his cows at a watering hole in Kenya
Drought has pushed nomads in Kenya into povertyImage: Frank Schultze / Brot für die Welt

Climate wars

German social psychologist Robert Welzer has said that the social consequences of climate change poses "the biggest challenge to modernity."

In his book, "Climate Wars," he lists 70 conflicts around the world that he says threaten to escalate because of climate change. According to Welzer, the civil war in Sudan, which involves some 20 militias in addition to government troops, is a conflict between settled farmers and nomadic herders and is the first "climate war."

But conflicts between nomads and settlers aren't new, they're as old as humanity. That's why, nomad researcher Schlee said, climate change certainly does not sound the death knell for nomadic lifestyles. On the contrary, new technology such as mobile phones can make lives for nomads easer, Schlee said.

"Actually, there are ever fewer arguments for a settled lifestyle," Schlee said, adding that nomadic lifestyles are increasingly being seen in industrialized countries.

"Most companies today are headed by nomads who move from one country to another, from one hotel room to another."

Author: Oliver Samson (sp)
Editor: Mark Mattox

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