Crossing borders: Pastoralists cope with drought between Ethiopia and Somaliland

On the frontiers of Ethiopia and Somaliland, Oxfam, with funding from ECHO, is helping pastoralists move across borders to cope with future droughts. Caroline Berger reports.

Abdullahi sits chewing qat, a mildly narcotic plant, under the shade of the acacia tree where he was born, and surveys his ancestral lands on the borders of Ethiopia and Somaliland. For centuries, Abdullahi and his grandfathers have followed the pastoralist way of life, moving their herds from one place to another in search of fresh pasture.

“I remember when I was a child the grass was up to my chest”, he smiles, “it was a time of prosperity in our village”.

Twenty years later recurrent droughts have rendered the land which Abdullahi remembered, a more arid and inhospitable landscape. His abundant pasture has been replaced by a sporadic green oasis, which has sprouted after this season’s rain. But for roaming pastoralists, like Abdullahi, there is nowhere to move as traditional grazing patterns have become threatened by changing agricultural practices, and increased competition for grazing land. Today, criss crossed patterns splice the landscape into hundreds of farming settlements marked by makeshift fences tied together with acacia sticks.

“All the land has been taken”, says Abdullahi, as he looks forlornly in the distance. “There is nowhere for my animals to roam”.

Abdullahi only owns a meager 150 square meters plot compared to the 10 square kilometers of land owned by some of his neighbors. Since independence in 1990, around 90% of land in the west of Somaliland has become privately enclosed as more pastoralists move away from a traditional nomadic lifestyle and towards fixed agricultural holdings. But for people like Mohammed Digale Ahmed, 50, the change to farming is difficult. “I don’t have the tools to irrigate my land and other areas are more fertile”.

Here in Somaliland, where more than two thirds of people depend on the land for a living, the traditional pastoralist lifestyle is under threat. Abdullahi says sadly, “the pastoralist way of life is deteriorating every year”. The effect of changing agricultural practices is already apparent and many people have been forced to move to the cities. In Hargeisa, Somaliland’s capital, a new makeshift camp has sprung up to house the new influx of pastoralists displaced by drought.

Traditionally, pastoralist families roamed freely without heed to national borders which were created without regard to the indigenous population. This nomadic lifestyle increased their resilience to drought as their cattle could graze over a much wider area seeking out more fertile pastures. Whilst this existence is endangered by the increasing enclosure of the land, there are still opportunities to prosper as families can move across to Ethiopia, where the enclosure of the land is less advanced. Oxfam, together with their local partner, Havoyocco, have developed a unique cross border program to help the communities which straddle the border.

Khadilja, a grandmother who has lived in a pastoralist community for the whole of her 70 years, worries about the increasing enclosure of the land. She tells me that “every place is a farm”, but adds that she still can find pasture for her cattle in Ethiopia. Other villagers tell the same story.

Oxfam’s cross border project is helping to sustain the pastoralist way of life, which is increasingly becoming marginalized. With support from Oxfam, many people, like Abdullahi, now have the chance to move to new lands across the border and access scarce resources, like water, particularly in times of drought. Oxfam’s nine newly constructed water catchment areas mean that livestock can access water on both sides of the border, away from fenced off lands.

Abdullahi who lost more than half of his animals in last year’s drought, has high hopes for the project. He tells me “Now I can move freely everywhere, and it will help me to cope with future droughts.” Abdullahi will also be able to sell his livestock across the border, which he tells me “will increase my income as I can access new markets. Now I get $30 for one shoat in Hargeisa but this means I can sell my livestock on both sides of the border.” In Somaliland, pastoralists are major contributors to the economy, and therefore supporting livestock trade will contribute to avoiding future food crises in this area.

As droughts become ever more prevalent in East Africa, and the problems of pastoralism persist, Oxfam’s cross border work will help to support the pastoralist way of life for future generations to come.

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Oxfam's humanitarian response to the East Africa food crisis

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