Drought Threatens Nomads in Horn of Africa

A widespread drought is killing the livelihoods of pastoral nomads in the region known as the Horn of Africa. Cows, goats and other livestock have all died due to the water shortage. The devastation poses the question of whether the lifestyle of pastoralists — who move between Somalia, Kenya and Ethiopia foraging for food and water for their herds — can be sustained.

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An incredible drought is sweeping across the horn of Africa. In the last two years hundreds of thousands of animals have died, and aid agencies fear that millions of people could be at risk for starvation.

NPR's Jason Beaubien reports that nomadic herders are especially hard-hit.

JASON BEAUBIEN reporting:

At the village of Chantaback(ph), in northeast Kenya, Abdul Gabreem Ollum(ph) stands in dusty sand amidst carcasses of donkeys, sheep, and cows. The dry, gray, lifeless plain stretches behind Ollum toward the horizon. He says most of his livestock have perished because of the drought.

Mr. ABDUL GABREEM OLLUM (Kenya, Africa): (Foreign spoken)

BEAUBIEN: The cattle have nothing to eat, he says, and were killed by the drought. He used to have 200 cows, now he has just 20. Ollum is 70-years-old. He says this is the worst drought he's ever seen.

The land in this arid part of Africa is too dry most years for growing crops. The only people who manage to eke out a living here are nomadic herders. Several million pastoralists in the region drift across parts of Somalia, Kenya, and Ethiopia, to find water and pastures for their animals.

Peter Smerden, with the UN's World Food Program, says part of the problem this year is that the drought covers most of the horn of Africa.

Mr. PETER SMERDEN (UN's World Food Program): Usually when there's a drought in Kenya or in Somalia, the pasturalists, nomadic pasturalists, have a fall-back area so they can pull their animals back to somewhere where there is rain. This time, because it's a regional drought, they tried to pull back, but they pulled back to areas with no rain as well. And so we're seeing now hundreds of thousands of livestock deaths. And that probably will continue until there is some rain.

BEAUBIEN: Smerden expects six million people in the region to need food aid as a result of the drought, for at least the coming year.

The nomads' livelihoods are also under threat from overgrazing, development and neighboring districts, and political marginalization. In this part of Kenya, the pasturalists don't consider them to be Kenyans, and other Kenyans' consider them to Somalis.

To the west, sedentary farmers and local administrators have blocked the nomads from areas where they used to graze their goats, cows, and camels.

Robert Enjecko(ph), with the Pasturalists Development Program run by the African Union, says for centuries the traditions of the nomads allowed them to efficiently raise livestock in this harsh environment. But now, he says, that's changing.

Mr. ROBERT ENJECKO (Pasturalists Development Program): Because of the increasing populations, both in numbers of livestock they keep, and the popular human population, you get that, this natural systems of actually managing the environment are not working now; because the pressure on the environment is getting more and more every day.

BEAUBIEN: Enjecko says there urgently needs to be an assessment of what the livestock carrying capacity is for this region, and then systems need to be put in place to keep the number of domestic livestock below that threshold.

Another tricky issue is that animals, cows in particular, are kept as symbols as wealth rather than as part of commercial farming enterprises. Enjecko says the Kenyan government could help commercialize livestock keeping by setting up a more formal livestock market in this remote corner of the country.

Currently, animals are often marched for hundreds of miles to get them to auction.

Abdulee Abdah knows well how hard life is becoming for the nomads in this part of the horn of Africa. He's just emerged from a hole, thirty feet down in the ground, where he was searching for water for his camels. Wooden bells dangle from the camels' necks as they drink.

Members of Abdah's family pass the water up out of the hole in plastic buckets to a trough at the surface. As his brothers crowd around, Abdah says this is the only source of water for miles.

Mr. ADBULEE ABDAH (Africa): (Foreign spoken)

BEAUBIEN: Cows have died, he says. Goats have died. Even camels have died. Abdah says they dug this well by hand, with buckets. The water level keeps dropping and soon they'll have to excavate it even further.

In addition to all his other problems, what he really needs right now, he says, is a proper shovel.

Jason Beaubien, NPR News.

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