Dealing with drought

Drought in the Horn of Africa has been widespread, causing food insecurity that has triggered a regional humanitarian crisis, particularly among livestock-owning communities. FAO’s Abdal Monium Osman, Senior Emergency and Rehabilitation Officer, and Cyril Ferrand, Resilience Team Leader for East Africa explain what FAO is doing to help improve the resilience of pastoral livelihoods.

Members of a pastoral community in Kenya wait to receive animal feed as part of the drought response. Droughts in the Horn of Africa have been increasing in frequency and severity. With consecutive years of poor rains in addition to the El Niño-induced drought in 2015-16, there has been little to no recovery among affected households. ©FAO/Luis Tato


Q. How does the pastoralist system survive after a severe drought, like the ones in 2011 and 2017?

A. The pastoral system employs a range of strategies to recover and enhance resilience. These strategies include the mobilization of pastoralists to exploit grazing resources, the use of browsing animals like camels and goats to graze on woody species, and the availability of social networks and safety nets to loan livestock to restock in preparation for the future.

Another major factor in recovery is maintaining animal health and feed quality while waiting for grazing conditions to improve.

Areas of Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia are still in the middle of the drought. Crop farmers can recover in one or two seasons, but pastoralists require four or five years to regenerate their stock.

Q. What should FAO and other partners do to support pastoralist livelihoods in Eastern Africa?

A. There is no longer one single form of pastoralism, and we need to tailor our support according to need. Some require commercial assistance to sell their animals and we assist them in a value chain approach. Others may have lost everything by the time they reach assistance. In that case, they would need assistance to begin a new livelihood.

FAO priority areas include improving capacity and accountability in governance institutions, addressing cross-border and regional aspects of pastoralism, utilizing monitoring systems to address problems when they arise and ensuring a timely livelihoods-based livestock emergency response when crises threaten.

In Somalia, a girl drinks milk from a goat at a camp for pastoralists who have lost their livelihood because of drought. A man fills a water container for thirsty animals. ©FAO/Karel Prinsloo

Q. How can FAO best utilize its resources to support pastoralism in its different contexts?

A. FAO has several comparative advantages, especially in its expertise in animal health and other livestock issues.

Currently, FAO only works with animal feed issues when emergency situations occur – we need to work to guide all stakeholders in evaluating feed availability throughout each country, not just during emergencies. One way forward is offered by a new FAO-developed tool to analyse feed availability in a given country or region based on domestic availability of resources.

Q. What are some lessons learned from the response to the 2016-17 Eastern Africa drought, and how can FAO use them in future responses to crises?

A. We are still in the middle of lessons learned because the drought is ongoing. There is a form of repetition with the droughts saying that we will be better prepared for the next time. As a global community momentum is lost one year or 18 months after a drought and energy drops off each time.

One positive lesson learned is that FAO has helped IGAD in acknowledging that pastoralism is a transboundary issue, and as such we worked with governments to allow border crossings in search of better grazing areas without having to worry about conflict or disputes in these areas. The lesson here is that diffusing tension and facilitating peaceful access to grazing and water resources during drought is key to minimizing social tension and saving livestock.

Lack of access to animal feed resources caused massive livestock losses, resulting in higher child malnutrition, teaching us to target the milking herds left behind to feed the neediest while the main herd migrates.

Collecting water from an almost-dry river in Ethiopia. FAO’s Resilience Team for Eastern Africa has been working tirelessly to improve the resilience of pastoral livelihoods in the face of unrelenting drought conditions. ©FAO/Giulio Napolitano

Q. What role do livestock and pastoralism play in ensuring nutrition in the arid and semi-arid regions?

A. Pastoralism enables the conversion of marginal dryland resources into high quality animal products such as milk. Milk remains one of the most essential food items for pastoral household nutrition, particularly for children under five years of age.

Studies in Kenya have shown that there is a direct correlation between child malnutrition and deterioration in animal feed and water, but we were not putting enough emphasis of this correlation. Now, there is an FAO/UNICEF project to precisely link children’s health and animal health.

Q. What can we expect from the pastoralism crisis in the region in 2018?

A. Unfortunately, the climate outlook from February to May 2018 is not hopeful. In Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia there is no prospect for improvement of the conditions. The forecast is average to below average rainfall which means no grazing recovery, no cereal production and no recuperation of water areas.

On the positive side, FAO looks forward to implementing a more robust livestock early warning system – the Predictive Livestock Early Warning System (PLEWS) - in addition to the feed balance tools for all stakeholders. Finally, we look forward to more emphasis on the design and implementation of nutrition-sensitive livestock programmes and animal feed interventions in pastoral settings.

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