Innovative Satellite Solutions to Ethiopia’s Drought

Ethiopia is home to one of the largest pastoral communities in the world. // Photo by Jeffrey Brown

Mamedo Nur-Hussen is one of the millions of traditional pastoralists in Ethiopia. His family has tended herds of sheep and goats in the Telalak district of the Afar Region in Ethiopia for the past five generations, constantly searching for green pasture in an area known for arid conditions.

Each year in Africa, more than 200 million pastoralists seek available pasture for their herds using a combination of low-tech methods. The herders rely on indigenous knowledge and “dagu,” or verbal exchange within their semi-nomadic communities, to tell them where there might be available grazing lands.

Mamedo has relied upon traditional methods to find pasture, traveling for weeks on foot to locations based on past knowledge of the terrain, tips and advance scouting — methods that have become increasingly unreliable due to climate change.

After long treks with little to no water or food, livestock are dying. For pastoralists like Mamedo who depend solely on livestock for income, this is devastating. While some herders have adopted modern methods to find greener pastures, others have abandoned herding altogether to make a stable living in order to provide for their families.

Ethiopia’s economy is based mainly on agriculture, including livestock and crop production. // Photo by: Jeffrey Brown

Ethiopia is facing a devastating drought triggered by El Niño, one of the strongest weather events ever recorded that stems from shifting winds causing warm water to move east in the Pacific Ocean.

The effects of the extreme weather patterns brings heavy rains in the dry season, and not enough rain in the rainy season. The severe weather shift leaves agricultural-dependent countries like Ethiopia food insecure and pushes families deeper into poverty.

More than 36 million people face hunger across southern and eastern Africa, according to the United Nations.
Pastoralist families are among the world’s poorest and most vulnerable to climate-change effects. // Photos by Jeffrey Brown

Ethiopia’s pastoral population is estimated at 12 to 15 million people, the majority of whom live in the arid or semi-arid drylands that cover about 60 percent of the country.

Due to El Niño’s extreme effects, thousands of livestock have died and the animals that remain are becoming frail caused by the lack of grazing areas, and feed and water shortages.

Recent estimates by Ethiopia’s Bureau of Agriculture indicate that more than 7.5 million farmers and herders need immediate agricultural support to produce staple crops like maize and teff, and livestock feed to keep their animals healthy and resume production.

By helping to build more resilient pastoralist communities, PCI and partners aim to put an end to Ethiopia’s reoccurring poverty cycle. // Photo by Morgana Wingard, USAID

In August 2013, PCI entered into a unique partnership funded by USAID Development Innovation Ventures to help communities map out traditional grazing areas, digitize those maps, and overlay them with vegetation data derived from the World Food Program’s early warning monitoring system.

This SAPARM map shows the state of grazing conditions in the Telalak woreda of Ethiopia’s Afar region. Green shows heavy vegetation, yellow is moderate and brown means no vegetation. Dotted red lines displays traditional grazing areas.

Distributed every ten days, maps generated through PCI’s Satellite-Assisted Pastoral Resource Management (SAPARM) initiative displays real-time pinpoint areas of green pasture so Mamedo and his fellow pastoralists who rely on accurate reports of grazing conditions to successfully raise livestock can make more informed, timely decisions.

“They’ll integrate this data with scouting or their indigenous knowledge. It’s not as if SAPARM replaces it, but actually enhances their other mechanisms,” said Chris Bessenecker, VP of Strategic Initiatives, PCI.

In the first stage of using maps from SAPARM, almost 80 percent of pastoralists in the intervention community used the maps for migration decision-making and more than half said it was their most important source of information.

USAID recently awarded PCI $1.3 million to expand the SAPARM program, and Google is also partnering on the initiative with $750,000.

SAPARM helps pastoralists find greener pastures to keep their livestock alive and sustain livelihoods despite severe drought. // Photo by Jeffrey Brown

Technology and innovation are driving solutions to improving the lives of millions of people facing drought and flooding around the world.

At a time when climate change is making traditional methods of finding pasture increasingly unreliable, SAPARM fills a critical information gap for pastoralists.

“As climate change ravages arable land in East Africa, herd deaths have been cut in half when pastoralists use these satellite maps to find green pasture for their animals,” said George Guimaraes, President and CEO, PCI.

PCI’s Chris Bessenecker recently presented a Devtalk on “Partnering For Innovation” at the second annual Global Partnerships Practitioners Forum hosted by the Secretary’s Office of Global Partnerships at the U.S. Department of State, the U.S. Global Development Lab at the U.S. Agency for International Development, Concordia and PeaceTech Lab. Watch the 5 minute presentation on our innovative SAPARM project:

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