Safumume Abdush thought the Gor river that runs past her village in southeastern Ethiopia could never run dry – and then it did.
First the wind pattern changed. Then the clouds disappeared. Now, after four seasons of failed rains, the Gor has gone, the river bed turned to dust, just like the once-fertile land on its banks farmed for generations by the people of Halo Busa village.
Abdush, 35, says she has never witnessed a drought like this. “We can’t call ourselves farmers anymore, because we are not farming,” she told The New Humanitarian. “Two months ago, we planted sorghum again. But without rain, we won’t harvest anything.”
Halo Busa, a one-hour drive from the southeastern city of Dire Dawa, borders the Somali region, one of the areas worst affected by two years of back-to-back droughts that have scorched a belt of land along Ethiopia’s southern border.
Close to eight million people are facing life-threatening levels of hunger in the south, a hardship compounded by the struggle of a cash-strapped Ethiopian government and underfunded aid agencies to reach all in need.
Worse is forecast, as rains later this year are also expected to fail – an unprecedented fifth season of drought. That will double the number “targeted for assistance” to 17 million, according to the UN’s emergency aid coordination body, OCHA.
“If rain doesn't fall this year, the future will be disastrous,” Anwar Jemal, a food expert with the regional agricultural bureau in Dire Dawa, told The New Humanitarian.
A way of life under threat
Pastoralism is at the core of people’s livelihoods in southern Ethiopia, an arid region of sandy soil and patchy, thorny brush. Drought is common here, but the severity of this unrelenting stretch has left even these adaptable communities reeling.
Pastoralists' wealth is stored in their animals.
Before the drought, a camel was worth $1,000, a cow $400, and goats $100 a head – with an average herd typically numbering between 100 and 200 animals. But since late 2021 an estimated 3.5 million livestock have died, with another 25 million at risk.
The market has also turned against pastoralists. In 2021, the sale of a goat in Gode in the Somali region bought enough maize to feed an average family for 23 days. This March, it was around seven days – a 65 percent drop.
Animals that have survived are generally in poor shape. Milk production – a significant contribution to household incomes and child nutrition – is just a fraction of normal output, and the overall fertility of the animals has also fallen.
People on the move
Jeldēsa village, in the Shinile district of the Somali region, lies in a grove of acacia trees on a key trade route between the Oromia city of Harar and the Red Sea coast. It was once home to 5,000 people, and important enough to boast a US government-funded clinic and school.
But hundreds of residents, their livelihoods turned upside down by the drought, have abandoned the village. “Their animals started dying, so they left to the neighbouring Oromia region and Dire Dawa town for work,” said community head Mustafa Ali.
In the Somali region alone, more than 286,000 people have been forced from their homes over the last two years and are now living in informal camps on the outskirts of towns. The majority are women and children who have moved to urban areas to try and find work, while their husbands stay with the remaining animals.
“I do this to support my family. There’s no other work.”
Displacement increases the risk for women of sexual violence and exploitation, according to the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR. The drought-induced closure, either fully or partially, of over 1,100 schools in the Somali region also leaves young girls more vulnerable to child labour and early marriage.
Charcoal production is a lifeline for rural women that live close to markets – one of the few remaining ways they can make any money. The spindly trees in the neighbourhood are chopped down, baked in a kiln, and the charcoal sold as cooking fuel in towns.
Rahma Sahat earns $4 a week hawking sacks of the black briquettes from a spot next to the Ethiopia-Djibouti railway line that runs close to Jeldēsa. “I do this to support my family. There’s no other work,” she explained.
Ethiopia has a flagship social protection scheme designed to help vulnerable rural households. The Productive Safety Net Programme (PSNP), launched in 2005, delivers cash or food aid to over eight million people out of a population of roughly 117 million.
The National Disaster and Risk Management Commission, the main agency for disaster prevention and response coordination, also distributes emergency support – including fertiliser, new seeds, animal feed, and grain.
But the government’s ability to respond to the drought has been compromised by nearly two years of war in the northern regions of Tigray, Amhara, and Afar, which has absorbed much of the federal government’s revenue and focus.
Although a ceasefire agreed with rebel forces in March has allowed humanitarian aid to begin to flow to the five million in need in the north, Ethiopia’s economy is still struggling under the weight of US sanctions, a credit freeze, a record rate of inflation, and rising food and fuel costs.
“In the past, the government was supporting us, but so far we’ve received nothing.”
In the drought-affected Somali region, PSNP cash stipends have been delayed and, where they have been distributed, it has not been enough for households to buy the 15 kilograms of grain a month they are supposed to cover – a consequence of the rapid food price inflation. Donor rations have also been cut.
“In the past, the government was supporting us, but so far we’ve received nothing,” Miriam Ladieye, a pastoralist from Shinile district, told The New Humanitarian. Her sole income comes from the charcoal she sells in the nearest town, three hours away.
Part of the reason for the delayed support has been a lack of coordination between federal and regional authorities. That held up a formal declaration of a drought emergency this year, according to a July report by the state-funded Ethiopian Human Rights Commission (EHRC).
“Government and stakeholders should have carried out meaningful disaster risk reduction activities and prevention [earlier],” Abdi Jibril, an EHRC commissioner, told The New Humanitarian.
As the drought deepened, local officials also struggled to reach remote communities.
“Our administration [area] is very wide, and infrastructure development [like roads] is a big problem here,” explained Mohammed Kaahin Xoosh, chair of Sitti district – one of 11 administrative zones in the Somali region.
International aid has also been limited, partly due to a financing gap – Ethiopia’s overall $1.5 billion appeal is less than a third funded this year – but also because of high levels of insecurity in the south that have constrained aid agency access, including recent attacks by the jihadist group al-Shabab.
What to do?
Sahan is the custom of sending young men out to scout for pasture – journeys that can last for more than two weeks and run the risk of conflict with communities guarding precious water points.
The tit-for-tat violence makes drought not only a climate emergency but also a development and security challenge, explained Liban Aydid, a development specialist with the aid agency Mercy Corps in Dire Dawa.
Aydid wants to see pastoralism evolve into a sustainable economic model. But he says this will take more community-supported development and conflict reduction initiatives that build resilience and help people bounce back from shocks.
One step he is promoting in the south is offering pastoralists subsidies to destock so they can focus more resources on fewer livestock. The idea is that smaller but healthier herds can better survive until the next rains.
“No one wants them to stop being pastoralists,” Aydid told The New Humanitarian. “But we can at least support them with livestock management and help them diversify.”
Edited by Obi Anyadike.