Drought in East Africa: How farmers and pastoralists can cope (The New Humanitarian & Interpress News)

| September 1, 2022

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Safumume Abdush thought the Gor river that runs past Halo Busa village in southeastern Ethiopia could never run dry. And then it did. Now, after four seasons of failed rains, the river bed has turned to dust, just like the once-fertile land on its banks. The result is that life has changed for many Ethiopian pastoralists. Surviving animals are in poor shape, milk production is a fraction of normal output, and the overall fertility of animals has fallen. Experts recommend destocking so that pastoralists can focus their resources on fewer livestock. In Uganda, the situation is equally severe. In the face of extreme drought, farmers are looking for access to inputs such as improved seeds to make the most of the rain that falls. Uganda’s Minister for Agriculture, Frank Tumwebaze, says that he will work with the Ministry of Finance to try to make irrigation equipment more accessible. Other experts recommend planting early, especially drought-resistant and early-maturing varieties, and rain catchment systems.

Safumume Abdush thought the Gor river that runs past Halo Busa village in southeastern Ethiopia could never run dry. And then it did. First, the wind pattern changed. Then the clouds disappeared. Now, after four seasons of failed rains, the river bed has turned to dust, just like the once-fertile land on its banks.

Ms. Abdush, 35, has never witnessed a drought like this. She says, “We can’t call ourselves farmers anymore, because we are not farming. Two months ago, we planted sorghum again. But without rain, we won’t harvest anything.”

Halo Busa borders the Somali region, one of the areas worst affected by two years of back-to-back droughts that have scorched a belt of land along Ethiopia’s southern border. As a result, close to eight million people are facing life-threatening levels of hunger in southern Ethiopia, a hardship compounded by the struggle of the Ethiopian government and aid agencies to reach those in need.

Worse is forecast, as rains later this year are also expected to fail—an unprecedented fifth season of drought. 

The result is that life has changed for many Ethiopians. Pastoralism is the core of people’s livelihoods in southern Ethiopia, an arid region of sandy soil and patchy, thorny brush. Pastoralists’ wealth is stored in their animals, and that wealth is decreasing as livestock die. Prices are also rising, so the sale of one goat now buys only a week’s food for a family, compared to three-weeks’ worth a year ago. 

Surviving animals are generally in poor shape. Milk production—a significant contribution to household incomes and child nutrition—is a fraction of normal output, and the overall fertility of animals has fallen as well.

Liban Aydid is a development specialist with international aid organization Mercy Corps in Dire Dawa, Ethiopia. He recommends that pastoralists destock so they can focus their resources on fewer livestock. He also suggests that pastoralists be offered subsidies as an incentive to explore new means of livelihood. He says, “No one wants them to stop being pastoralists. But we can at least support them with livestock management and help them diversify.” 

Ethiopia’s National Disaster and Risk Management Commission is the main agency for disaster prevention and response coordination, responsible for distributing emergency supports such as fertilizer, new seeds, animal feed, and grain. But in the drought-affected Somali region, cash relief stipends have been delayed. Where they have been distributed, it has not been enough for households to buy the 15 kilograms of grain per month they are supposed to cover—a consequence of the rapid inflation in food prices.

In Uganda, the situation is equally severe. Hundreds of people are dying from famine in the Karamoja region and in other districts that are facing critical levels of acute malnutrition. In the face of extreme drought, farmers are looking for access to technologies such as improved seeds to try to make the most of the rain that falls. 

The rains in many areas of Uganda have been erratic, leading to little or no harvest. Joseph Indiya says: “Actually, the soil here is very fertile. We have rivers around. Production [is usually] so high, but this has surprised us this time. There used to be some rain in June and then rain throughout July. But now, there is not even a single drop of rain.”

While most of Karamoja and other regions are dry, in July, heavy rain caused rivers to overflow in the Eastern region’s Mbale district, killing 29 people and leaving hundreds homeless.

Uganda’s Minister for Agriculture, Frank Tumwebaze, said the situation in Uganda is similar to the rest of the Horn of Africa, where Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya, South Sudan, and Sudan are faced with food insecurity due the four-season-long drought.

Mr. Tumwebaze says he will work with the Ministry of Finance to try to make irrigation equipment more accessible. 

Dr. Ambrose Agona is the Director General of the National Agricultural Organization in Uganda. He says that farmers typically expect the first rainy season to begin around March and continue to June. But the rains can actually begin as early as January. If farmers plant early enough, they can take advantage of this extra precipitation for a good yield, especially if they plant drought-resistant and early-maturing varieties.

Veterinarian and researcher Dr. William Olaho-Mukani says that farmers need access to these kinds of seed varieties, as well as water-harvesting technologies. 

He says there is a lot of water in Karamoja when it rains, and farmers must try to catch and store it for later use. 

He adds, “We must ensure that [these technologies] are available [to farmers] at affordable prices.”

This story is adapted from two articles: One was written by Sara Creta, published by The New Humanitarian, and titled: “Ethiopia’s worsening drought sees hunger numbers soar.” To read the full story, go to: https://www.thenewhumanitarian.org/news-feature/2022/08/17/drought-Ethiopia-hunger-pastoralism-climate-change 

The other was written by Wambi Michael, published by Interpress News, and titled: “Tragic Irony of Hunger Deaths in Karamoja, Uganda Amidst Plenty of Climate Adaptation Technologies.” To read the full story, go to: https://www.ipsnews.net/2022/08/uganda-tragic-irony-hunger-deaths-karamoja-amidst-plenty-climate-adaptation-technologies/ 

Photo: A man and child walk in a drought-affected landscape. Credit: Michael Tewelde/WFP.