What next for the pastoralists in Ethiopia’s drought?

Oxfam Disasters, Humanitarian


Pastoral nomads in Ethiopia have been heavily affected by a record-breaking drought. They have lost their flocks and their way of life and make up the majority of the 800,000 people classified as internally displaced (IDPs). What will they do next and how do we best support men, women, boys and girls in this disaster? Eliza Hilton reports back from a recent visit to the East of the country.

As you drive out of Dire Dawa, Ethiopia’s second federal city, the land becomes quickly sparse, beautiful and empty. For miles along the railway track from Addis to Djibouti there is no road or village. Periodically we see a herdsman, or maybe a small flock of goats or a camel or two. But then nothing and it is just us between the earth and the sky, the way marked by termite sculptures and tough desert bushes.

80km from the district centre we reach the remote village (kebele) of Fedeto – spread out before us on a flat blue-grey horizon. A year ago it was a trading post of around 3,600 people, or 600 families, living in mud-brick houses. The people there were those that had given up their pastoral way of life in a previous period of drought more than ten years back. A riverbed that flows during the winter rains leaves a water table that is still accessible. Bore holes and a pond keep these people here; there are small shops, a government school and health post. It became the
first settled home for these people, and they stayed.

Then, a year ago, the newcomers started to arrive. The poor rains for the last two years have meant a lack of grazing land across the region. In December 2015 the government of Ethiopia estimated 10.2 million people were in need of humanitarian assistance as their livestock had depleted and they were moving towards the kebeles in search of support.

We meet Moumina. The aid term for Moumina is an Internally Displaced Person (IDP). She and her husband have a family of seven children and are used to a life where the family is permanently on the move in the search for new pastures. The worst time in her life was a year ago when their flock of 200 sheep, 20 cows and 20 camels had all perished, or were sold for the family’s survival. They came here and started to camp on the outskirts of the kebele. ‘We have lost everything,’ she tells us. She joined an informal camp that has expanded to
around 600 families, tripling the size of the community.

In December 2015 the government of Ethiopia estimated 10.2 million people were in need of humanitarian assistance A month or so back, the light summer rains brought a tinge of green grass to this barren landscape and animals had something to eat. But Moumina has no animals left except a small goat donated by a relative. And other people’s animals are still perishing, exhausted by the drought so far and susceptible to disease.

Moumina is busy caring for the children, collecting water, grinding whole wheat grains into flour, collecting firewood and cooking injera, an exhausting cycle of coping activities. These are the traditional tasks for a woman in the community. But for her husband it’s somehow worse. Their job was herding cattle and now there is nothing to do. ‘My husband is in there,’ she says, pointing at the nomad’s tent:’He just lies around and sleeps all day. I can’t send my 15 year-old son to school – he’s never seen a school before. He has nothing to do now we have no

The psychological distress of men torn from their traditional roles is a situation borne out by Oxfam’s research into the gender-related impact of the drought in similar communities.

In the last 12 months Moumina has received an unconditional cash grant from Oxfam four times. She’s used it to supplement the wheat ration given by the government with sugar and pasta. Recently Oxfam has distributed plastic sheets for waterproofing the nomadic shelters and a dignity kit for women like Moumina consisting of bars of soap, utensils, jerry cans, shoes, clothes, underwear, and reusable menstrual napkins. She uses the Oxfam constructed latrines in the centre of the IDP community and gets water from borehole wells that have been built by Oxfam along with vital
distributions of chlorine tablets.

Oxfam takes a gender equality approach to its programming and learning on how this happens best is being supported by the European Commission’s Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection department (ECHO) – one of the largest donors to people affected by crisis globally. We need to support women like Moumina to survive but we also need to understand and support the changing dynamics in the community, to help their cohesion and mutual support in new times, in a community that is rapidly transforming and in deep

There will be a need for them to work differently, bringing new skills to the family whether they aim to regain the pastoral life, or seek new livelihoods. It’s in times like these that strong women can emerge as leaders for gender equality that benefits men, women and children alike.

And as we say goodbye to Moumina, a new family arrives, 3 camels emerging from the dusty landscape, carrying all that is left from their homes and no flocks by their side.

Camels. Credit: Eliza Hilton/Oxfam

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Hawa (50) lives with four of her ten children in the Harisso internally displaced persons (IDP) site. She has lost 400 shoats and 100 cattle as a result of the drought. Credit: Abbie Trayler-Smith/Oxfam

A collapsed cow outside Fedeto, Siti Zone, Ethiopia; Moumina; and camels arriving. Credit: Eliza Hilton/Oxfam

Author: Eliza Hilton
Archive blog. Originally posted on Oxfam Policy & Practice.