Global Policy Forum

Drought in Africa: Ethiopia's Bitter Harvest

October 24, 2006

By the time the October rains arrived last week, five of the 13 heads of families in the village of Magado had hanged themselves, tormented by the loss of their cattle and livelihoods. Cahal Milmo reports from southern Ethiopia on what has become an international failure

The skeletal acacia trees that surround Magado village are testimony in more ways than one to the drought that has destroyed the lives of its inhabitants. The bare branches and parched earth are evidence of the six months of rainless heat that has wiped out up to 70 per cent of the livestock owned by the 11 million nomadic pastoralists spread across the Horn of Africa in the worst drought for a decade.

But in Magado, a tiny isolated community of herdsmen deep in the arid bush of southern Ethiopia, the acacia trees have helped extract a terrible price for the drought and the failure of the outside world to react quickly to their plight. Humanitarian aid to Africa has grown almost six-fold in the past eight years from $946m (£556m) to $5.6bn (£3.3bn). Magado's share of this windfall came too late.

One day, three months ago, Worish Catalo, a 60-year-old herdsman from the village, walked out to one of the acacia trees under which he had regularly watched his herd of 80 cows from dawn to dusk. He slung a rope over the tree's thorny branches and hanged himself among what were by then the wasted corpses of his starved cattle.

Mr Catalo, who had six children, was only the first. By the time the October rains arrived last week, the inhabitants of Magado had cut down four more men who had walked to other acacia trees never to return. Five of the 13 heads of family have killed themselves because of the shame and despair of watching their cattle, raised from birth and cherished like offspring, dwindle and perish before their eyes. Of the 2,000 cattle owned by the families of Magado before the drought struck at the beginning of 2006, just two now remain, an attrition rate of 99 per cent.

The people of Magado belong to the Borena, a proud and once-feared tribe of nomadic herdsmen who, according to legend, hold their livestock in such high esteem that when two kinsmen meet they will enquire about the wellbeing of their herds long before that of wives or children. Nine million Borena live in an increasingly lawless region straddling the Ethiopian and Kenyan border.

No one in Magado has died from starvation. In March, long after the cattle were beyond salvation, emergency food aid arrived which kept the pastoralists alive, if only to survey the destruction of their livelihood during what they call the ola, or dry period.

The village is grim proof of what an increasing number of experts say is an international community failing to provide help when it is needed most. Across the Borena lands, it is estimated that 150,000 cows have died, at least two thirds of the entire stock. Galamo Dima, 45, a village elder, now has a meagre supply of beans and maize to feed her seven children. The milk and meat her 10 cattle once provided are a stomach-cramping memory.

Dressed in the colourful shawls and bead necklaces of the Borena women, she sits on a stool, watching a sudden deluge that eight months ago would have been greeted as a salvation. Now the rain has turned the empty cattle enclosures into quagmires and washed the dust from five new stone tombs. Most of the herdsmen stand around doing nothing, trying to keep dry the piles of firewood they have collected for sale at the nearest market, a backbreaking eight-hour walk away.

Ms Dima said: "The aid came too late for us. We were provided with lifestock feed. But there were no animals to give it to. They were already dead. Yes, we have survived. But because we have lost our source of income, we can no longer send our children to school. It has been a terrible time. We must make a living from small things, firewood, wild crops. We have lost people and animals. We are proud; we have no wish to live off others. But now we are a marginalised people. Perhaps it is better for the men who have gone."

Near by is Bonaya Afatu, a traditional rabies doctor who treats humans and animals for the disease transmitted from wild dogs roaming the scrubby landscape occupied by the Borena. He knew three of the men who committed suicide, all of them aged between 50 and 75.

He said: "These men had seen other droughts; our land is prone to such things. But never before has it been so severe or have we suffered such a tragedy. Our traditions say that a man without cattle is nothing. To be a man of that age and lose all your cows means you cannot recover. These men took their lives because the shame was too great."

Magado, and the thousands of other Borena pastoralist settlements spread across southern Ethiopia, are part of the Horn of Africa's great cow economy. For more than two millennia, the Borena have learnt to eke an existence from the bleak landscape, shifting to seasonal feeding grounds and using communal wells set out according to a traditional co-operative system called gada. That way of life is now under threat. The gada, which relies on well-off families donating cows to those who have lost animals in a drought, no longer has the resources to restore the fortunes of herdsmen such as the people of Magado.

The nomadic tribes of the region stretching from Eritrea to Kenya and Somalia to Ethiopia have long been persecuted or ignored by national governments anxious to restrict access to water sources and traditional grazing lands. But with a bull valued at about £350 and a breeding cow at £150, they possess considerable wealth. One confidential assessment seen by The Independent put the value of the livestock in southern Ethiopia prior to the drought at between £3bn and £4.5bn.

So why was not more done to ensure this vast asset was preserved after the alarm about an impending drought was raised in December 2005? The British arm of one of the world's largest development charities, Care International, says it is due to an aid system which responds only when an emergency is at its height, and relies too heavily on distributing food. A report by Care UK, Living on the Edge, estimates 120 million people in sub-Saharan Africa, such as the Borena, are needlessly facing a permanent state of humanitarian emergency. The study found "the international community's response too often centres around food aid [and] generally speaking the response to emergencies is too late, too brief, inappropriate and inadequate".

From the famine in the west African country of Niger to the drought in the Horn of Africa, it is estimated that 35 million people faced starvation this year in crises which could have been prevented by an earlier response.

Geoffrey Dennis, the chief executive of Care UK, said: "What's needed is a fundamental overhaul of the way emergencies are funded so we can respond quickly, protect people from the worst effects, such as losing livestock, and support people to recover afterwards. Without this, the downward spiral will continue. Each time people fall into emergency, they become poorer, less able to escape poverty and more likely to be hit by emergency again."

The disparity between emergency food aid, often subsidised surpluses grown by countries such as the United States, and longer-term development aid is particularly severe in Ethiopia. Figures from the London-based think-tank, the Overseas Development Institute, show nearly 80 per cent of appeals for food aid in the country were met by donors this year. But just 35 per cent of requests for non-food aid - amounting to $110m - actually received money. In 2004, the US government provided $500m of food aid to Ethiopia, compared to $4m to be spent on long-term development aid.

One senior executive of an international agency based in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, said: "We know what we want to do, we know how we can do it but there is a wrong-headed bureaucracy in international aid that stops things being done in a timely fashion to prevent disasters like the drought."

It is ironic, therefore, that a groundbreaking attempt to change the thinking on humanitarian aid is centred on the Borena and communities surrounding Magado. The £2.5m project, funded by the US government's development department USaid, swung into action at the height of the drought by setting up small-scale slaughter houses to kill animals weakened by drought but still alive. The meat was dried and sold to provide savings for the owners to buy new animals once conditions are right. Other unusual initiatives included bringing fodder from as far afield as Addis Ababa, some 400 miles to the north, to ensure the survival of a core breeding herd.

Figures from USaid, which was funding work in the field by charities including Care International, show that for every $1 spent on such emergency measures, including a mass vaccination programme for drought-related disease, there was a benefit to the Borena tribesmen of $22. By the end of next month, they will know whether the "short rains" in Ethiopia, lasting from October to November, have been sufficient to prevent another drought next year and allow the restocking of the pastoralist herds.

But beneath the painfully slow recovery lies a multitude of obstacles. A decision by the Ethiopian government to redraw the district boundaries on land occupied by the Borena and their pastoralist neighbours, the Guji, has led to fierce armed clashes between the tribes. International critics described the move as the perpetuation of a long-held tactic by Addis Ababa to divide and rule pastoralist areas by handing control of resources to opposing tribes.

Some 40 miles south of Magado, fighting has erupted over the Kenyan border between the Borena and the Gabra, another pastoralist tribe, as each side attempts to steal cattle to restock their decimated herds. Groups of heavily armed herdsmen patrol the area, threatening a drawn-out conflict as water resources become increasingly scarce. In the past two weeks, more than 700 cattle have been stolen from villages close to Magado, and 14 people killed.

But the most insuperable obstacle to the project to restore the livelihoods of the Borena is the task of persuading them to abandon 2,000 years of tradition - dictating that cattle are accrued as a symbol of wealth and status - and sell their cows to market.

Cary Farley, the head of Care's pastoral livelihoods initiative in Ethiopia, said: "There is a vast untapped market at home and abroad for the meat the pastoralists can provide. We are talking about developing a very sizable trade system which will provide a cash income to the pastoralists that will insure them against future droughts. The problem is that they have never wanted to sell any more than one or two cows in a single year to buy the most vital items."

There are early signs of success. Some such as Galamo Dima say the time has come to change and the people of Magado will sell any surplus cows from the new herd they hope to develop. Aid agencies estimate that about 5,000 animals are now being sold each week from the Borena region to traders from Addis Ababa for export to markets in Yemen, Dubai and Egypt.

But others, such as Jamdesa Mole, remain to be convinced. The 42-year-old, who lives in a settlement of five huts five hours' walk from the nearest sizable village, lost his last 15 cattle in June and now scratches a living making wooden stools. He said: "Why should we believe anything the outside world tells us? Without cows you cannot have meat or milk, you cannot get married or have children. You cannot even plough a field. We have lost our birthright. Why would we sell it if it is restored to us by some miracle of God?"

More Information on Social and Economic Policy
More Information on the Lack of Hunger Relief and Other Food Aid Challenges
More Information on World Hunger
More General Analysis on International Aid
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