Don’t blame it on the rain

Published: 7 August 2011 11:30 CET

By Steve McDowell, Regional Advisor on Food Security, IFRC East Africa Regional Delegation

Is the Horn of Africa facing the worst drought in sixty years? Perhaps. Yet, in recent decades, many things have changed in the region, and the underlying causes of the current humanitarian crisis are complex and varied.

Unrealistic demands on the rain?

Given that rainfall levels have always historically fluctuated across the Horn of Africa, it is unlikely that a lack of rainfall alone can explain the current humanitarian crisis affecting Kenya, Ethiopia, Somalia and Djibouti. In fact, if we examine rainfall data over the last one hundred years, the levels have risen and fallen over ten or twenty-year periods. In reality, current rainfall levels are the same as sixty years ago. 

We should instead be turning our focus to other contributing factors, such as the increasingly changing nature of the livelihoods and resources of people living in the Horn of Africa.

Pastoral communities (namely those dependent on livestock for food and income) have lived and flourished in the Horn of Africa for hundreds of years.  As a result of a dramatic increase in the region’s population over several decades, five times as many families in pastoral communities have been trying to raise five times as many animals. In many cases, the natural resource base (i.e., pastures, browse/graze species, and water) has diminished. As charcoal burning is a predominant coping mechanism, vast tracts of forest cover have been destroyed. There is also the widespread introduction of small arms, and increasing limits on mobility through enclosure, that have all heavily impacted pastoralist communities. 
Yet with these changes, the traditional way in which pastoralists maintain their animals, for the most part, has not. A few innovators can be found in every community, but most pastoralists keep animals in the same way that their forefathers did 60 years ago, and it has resulted in a gradual decrease in livestock holdings. In the past, herds were vast, cushioning a family against losses in times of drought. Today, most pastoral communities barely maintain a subsistence-level with their animals, let alone herds large enough to sustain households through drought.

Balancing pastoralism with modernity  

Many of the problems for pastoralists today lie in the growing gap between traditional lifestyles and the realities of modernity. While the viability of pastoralism is being whittled away, the modern world is presenting unprecedented opportunities that decades ago were unimaginable.
Sixty-years ago, pastoralists lived in isolation, virtually cut off from the outside world. Today, the explosion in communication technology has removed the walls of separation. Information and communication is now easy and instantaneous through mobile phones and the Internet. Stories and images of others’ success in pastoral communities - particularly among the youth - are readily available. As parents also invest in their children’s education, expectations are created to obtain salaried employment in town.
Pastoralists try to balance this modern world with their traditional and cultural identity, as well as their livelihoods. Having invested in items that improve their quality of life, households loathe to leave them behind to forage for their animals, putting greater pressure on the lands closer-by. Only when the rains fail are they forced to migrate further away in search of sustenance.

Pastoralists today are caught between changing expectations, increased expenditures and their traditional livelihood, which cannot provide the income to meet these expenses and lifestyle. Yet we cannot begrudge these communities the opportunity to modernise, to achieve a higher quality of life, or a better future for their children.

However, some households are making this transition to modernity more successfully than others; a number of pastoralists have changed the way they maintain their livestock, some move into town, some start businesses from their rural homes, and others move part of their family into relief centres, leaving the fittest to tend to their animals. But a large percentage is caught in-between. The large-scale, socio-economic changes combined with successive droughts over decades, have sapped them of their resilience.

Aid: Coming to terms with change

The humanitarian community has worked to stay relevant to changes in pastoral communities. It has never been more urgent to maintain that effort than now. Appreciating the growing impact of socio-economic and environmental changes on vulnerability has prompted the need for more innovative means of adaptation. Pastoralists are not interested in returning to a status quo of sixty years ago.  They are looking to leave behind their vulnerability to drought through development.

Humanitarian agencies must move away from the traditional response that can too easily become intertwined in the coping strategies of these communities. Interventions must also come to terms with certain aspects of today’s world such as urban migration. Similarly, there is a need to diversify livelihoods for those who remain in rural areas and reduce their dependency on rainfall. It is important to support not only the most vulnerable pastoralists, but also those who are better off – those who are the future of pastoralism.

These approaches are not only inevitable, but they are important, contemporary drought-coping mechanisms. Supporting methods for adaptation is a valuable relief action, which if we can manage to do well, will empower communities, and ultimately reduce vulnerability to drought in the long-term. 

The arid lands of the Horn of Africa are in the throes of massive socio-economic and environmental changes with profound implications for traditional livelihoods.  The humanitarian consequences that have arisen from the current drought demonstrate that the pastoral world has changed. Humanitarian aid needs to come to terms with these changes as well.

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