Drylands: change is needed but must be based on local knowledge and hard-won experience


Thirteen million people were affected by the drought in the Horn of Africa in 2010 and 2011. New approaches to drought management are needed but, as Vanessa Tilstone argues, these approaches must incorporate lessons of the past and will be doomed to failure if not based on solid local understanding.

The 2010 and 2011 drought has meant that the global spotlight has once again pointed to the drylands of the Horn of Africa. Thirteen million people were affected by the drought, including 7.7 million in Kenya and Ethiopia. This drought has mobilised governments, citizens, NGOs and other agencies to look again at drought in the drylands and many are calling for new longer-term approaches.

The new energy and debate in seeking solutions is extremely welcome, however, now that the flurry of activity has subsided we must re-examine the evidence on impact and urgently fill some of the critical information gaps to inform our recovery and investment plans.

We must also learn the lessons of the past in terms of failed development projects and response initiatives, and make sure these inform future interventions.

Interventions need to be based on accurate data…

Until accurate information on numbers is available we must be careful not to be misled by exaggerated estimates of impact from the height of the drought, and over-react in term of recommendations. We also need to ensure that all our interventions are based on local understanding and ‘do no harm’ approaches. 

At the height of the drought livestock mortality was rumoured to be as high as 80% and in Kenya the government initially estimated 8 million livestock had been lost, but this has since been revised to just over 700,000. In Ethiopia, recent analysis by Tufts University in Borana estimated around 12.8% in Yabello and 17.2% livestock deaths in Dhas: this is confirmed by actors on the ground, and similar estimates are being made for Kenya.

Livestock mortality is difficult to estimate due to frequent and widespread livestock movement, the fact that there is limited baseline information, and loss data often includes livestock sales to meet basic needs. Loss data is also prone to exaggeration for obvious reasons, in addition to the general focus on livestock that remain in the homestead which tend to have higher mortality.

Standard and robust approaches to estimating loss in mobile livestock communities need to be developed/used and understood in a context where livestock death has been part of the system for maintaining ecological balance.

The absence of accurate information in the drylands not only relates to livestock: as we know from the recent census in Kenya, accurate population figures still elude us. In addition to the contested figures for a number of Northern districts, census data for both Kenya and Ethiopia show that the number of women in the drylands is significantly and inexplicably below the number of men.

With commitment from governments and development actors, solid livestock and population estimates can be gained, as can basic information on the number of people engaged in different livelihood options in the ASALs (Arid and Semi Arid Lands) to provide a stronger basis for planning. With the amount of money being pledged for ending the cycle of drought in the Horn, this surely can be addressed.

…and local understanding

Pastoralism remains the dominant and most resilient livelihood in many of the arid areas, yet needs support in terms of securing access to land and integration with markets. Yes, many poorer pastoralists are losing their livestock, and alternative livelihoods options for those people certainly need to be developed urgently by strengthening the human resource base and communications. However, we must be careful not to conclude that this drought illustrates a wholesale failure of pastoralism, rather it illustrates a failure of stakeholders to support and develop it.

Calls for change in approaches and thinking are necessary, but we must not throw out the vast experience and knowledge that already exists. Particularly positive changes include the increasing recognition that drought is a very different type of disaster than earthquakes and fires, and needs managing in radically different ways.

Other positive changes include the recognition that some emergency interventions can cause more damage than good (including food aid and water trucking) and the realisation that despite the decades of rhetoric around linking relief and development, we are not actualising this link either in NGO programmes or in sectoral discussions.

One of the most exciting changes happening is the increased interest in participatory landscape mapping and planning to understand the local context and inform all development and relief interventions. This will enable a thorough understanding of the various livelihoods and resources that exist and the inter-relationships between them, as well as facilitate informed discussions
with communities about their visions for resilient and sustainable livelihoods and their priorities for support.

There is much work to be done to disseminate and further develop the tools and approaches to do this. But if these issues are embraced, the trend of failed development projects and inappropriate emergency responses due to lack of understanding of the local context could begin to be phased out and replaced with support strategies that strengthen dryland communities and their resilience.

Author: Vanessa Tilstone
Archive blog. Originally posted on Oxfam Policy & Practice.