Pastoralism in the Age of Climate Change
Why traditional herders in Ethiopia are confronting the worst consequences of extreme weather
Pastoralism — the act of tending to and caring for livestock — is a tradition that embodies resilience, strength and perseverance. The practice evolved more than 6,000 years ago in response to environmental and climate variability. Traditionally, pastoralists migrate to dry areas not fit for farming, but still suitable for grazing.
Ethiopia is home to one of the largest pastoral communities in the world. Today, an estimated 12 to 15 million people — roughly 15% of the country’s population — make a living as herders. But a lack of land rights, poor infrastructure and limited access to commercial markets have led to widespread poverty among these communities. As a result, Ethiopia’s pastoralist families remain among the world’s poorest and most vulnerable to hunger.
The defining feature of pastoralism is mobility, which makes these communities inherently resilient to weather unpredictability. During a dry spell, for example, pastoralists can disperse their herds or move to new area. But in recent decades, Ethiopia has experienced climate variability so extreme that it’s threatening the existence of the very livelihoods that evolved to overcome unpredictable weather.
To make matters worse, Ethiopia is dealing with a brutal El Niño weather pattern this year that experts believe has led to one of the worst droughts the East African country has seen in 30 years. While it’s still unclear how El Niño and climate change affect one another, both create conditions that make Ethiopia more prone to natural disaster.
“This definitely has the potential of being the Godzilla El Niño.”
— Bill Patzert, NASA climatologist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory
This is where organizations like the World Food Programme (WFP) come in. The hunger-fighting agency is working with pastoral communities across Ethiopia to prevent hunger and build resilience against climate shocks like this.
How Pastoralists Drive Ethiopia’s Economy, Nourish Its People and Sustain Its Land
Today, Ethiopia has the largest livestock population in Africa and the 10th largest worldwide. Animals like cattle, sheep, goats, camels and even pigs and chickens are raised by both pastoral and agro-pastoral families — households that both grow crops and raise livestock. In fact, livestock sustains roughly 80% of Ethiopia’s rural poor. For income, these families sell the meat and dairy produced by their animals, in addition to the hides and skins. Even the manure of these livestock is sold, not just to farmers throughout Ethiopia but across the East Africa region. In total, pastoral communities produce about 12% of Ethiopia’s total economic output.
Beyond providing stable employment, pastoralism also provides a considerable amount of the meat, milk and other animal products consumed by both Ethiopians and consumers across East Africa. The meat and dairy products from their livestock contain key vitamins and nutrients to keep people healthy, especially young children and pregnant women. Both milk and meat are especially good sources of nutrients like iron, zinc and vitamin B, all of which are necessary for infants to develop into healthy adults.
Pastoral communities also help maintain the dryland ecosystems in east and southeast Ethiopia. Though these regions are too arid for conventional farming, grazing opens up pastures, stimulates plant growth, fertilizes the soil through animal droppings, enhances the soil’s capacity to absorb water and even aids in seed dispersal and plant diversity. In fact, regions where these herders move seasonally allows pastures to regenerate and experience less land degradation than areas around permanent settlements.
The Consequences of Climate Change
Ethiopia’s pastoralists are accustomed to weather that’s unpredictable and characterized by sporadic rain, but climate change has redefined what weather variability means. Because these herders follow traditional migratory routes to lead their livestock to the best pastures for grazing, they depend on intimate and often ancient knowledge of the ecosystem around them. As the climate of Ethiopia becomes characterized by higher temperatures, erratic rainy seasons and more persistent drought, pastoral communities are seeing the land and water sources they’ve relied upon for millennia disappear.
An analysis of climate trends in Ethiopia uncovered that past droughts used to occur every ten years. Now they occur every five years — and sometimes even more frequently.
Listen to Giammichele De Maio, Deputy Director of WFP’s Washington, D.C. office, who was stationed in Ethiopia for four years on the new challenges that pastoral families are facing:
WFP Interventions that Work
WFP employs a variety of programs in Ethiopia that bolster resilience to future disasters and meet immediate food needs during a severe drought or flood. This includes activities that help predict extreme weather, pinpoint healthy grazing lands, improve infrastructure and provide emergency food assistance when necessary.
The Livelihoods, Early Assessment and Protection project (LEAP) is an early warning tool that uses meteorological data to predict severe weather and inadequate food yields. The initiative was originally created to assist poor farmers, but WFP has recently expanded its scope to support the development of maps tailored to the specific needs of pastoralists. Known as the Satellite Assisted Pastoral Resource Management (SAPARM Initiative), the new program — launched last year — utilizes the data from LEAP to provide satellite images of vegetation cover. The maps are helping pastoralists in Ethiopia identify good grazing areas so they can make better decisions about where to take their herds during a drought. New images are generated every 10 days and only include areas that are considered traditional grazing grounds to prevent conflict between clans. A year into the project, pastoralists are not only using and trusting the maps, they’re already seeing results. In fact, over the last year there has been a 47% drop in herd mortality among participating herders.
Each year, Ethiopia’s Productive Safety Net Program (PSNP) provides over a million pastoralists with assistance in the form of food, cash, or a combination of both in return for their work. The program implements a wide range of public works activities identified by the community, including conserving and rehabilitating land and water resources and developing community infrastructure, including roads, schools and clinics.
“We see the value of working together. It benefits all of us a lot.”
— Osman Ahmed, a pastoralist and father of 10, on why he participates in a PSNP project to build local roads and water management systems.
Humanitarian needs in Ethiopia have tripled since early 2015 as a result of a severe drought — exacerbated by the current El Niño — that has caused successive harvest failures and widespread livestock deaths. Working with the government, WFP is planning to provide food assistance to 7.6 million people in 2016. Late last year, WFP assisted 5 million people with food assistance and 650,000 malnourished children with specialized nutritious food.
Overcoming Weather That Won’t Cooperate
For pastoral families in Ethiopia, adaptability equals survival. Because these communities and their resources are mobile, herd sizes can be scaled up during periods of stability to guard against future uncertainty. When grazing land becomes scarce or disease spreads among livestock, herds can be split across locations or movement patterns. Some families even loan surplus animals to one another to help build up herds. This doesn’t just make these communities more resilient, this practice also strengthens social ties and relationships.
Extreme weather like this year’s historic drought are threatening this ancient yet vital livelihood. But thanks to better technology, tools, and the support of humanitarian organizations like WFP, pastoralists in Ethiopia are overcoming the vast challenges of climate change one innovation at a time. These families are adapting — moving forward just like they’ve done for centuries.
— Katherine Frank, World Food Program USA