Ethiopia: Land of warm milk and no rain

Afar woman in Ethiopia
Afar woman outside her ari with milk and food containers in Ethiopia. Photo: Jaspreet Kindra/IRIN

Undajara, Afar, Ethiopia 31 May 2010 (IRIN) – The ari is a collapsible egg-shaped hut made of sticks and covered with woven reed mats, animal skins and cloth; one of them will be my home for the night in Undajara village, at the foot of the escarpment that separates Afar, one of the world’s hottest places, from the Tigray region of northern Ethiopia.

The camel milk in the container made from tightly-woven reeds is warm, like Ali Keloyta’s wife, Aysa, who beams and gestures that I should drink it all. On a mat she places a basket of flat bread made of maize flour, freshly baked in a wood-fired oven sunk in the ground.

“This is all we have to offer … our apologies,” she says in Amharic, a worried look in her eyes. Ali Yasin, coordinator of the government’s Pastoral Community Development Project (PCDP) in Afar, translates as I assure Aysa that the food is very tasty and more than adequate.

In Aysa’s yard three aris keep out the wind and the night chill of the desert in Chifra district, about 700km from the capital, Addis Ababa. An ari can be transported on a camel, and an Afar woman can put one up in a day.

Lightning flashes in the dusky sky and everyone seated on the mat turns their eyes skywards. Rain is precious in the parched Rift Valley, where daytime temperatures soar above 40 degrees Celsius but are still cooler than in the Denakil Depression to the north, one of the lowest points on earth.

Failed rains

The rains have failed again, so at the beginning of the year four of Ali and Aysa’s six sons left home with some of the livestock, in search of pasture. The Afar are all pastoralists, although some also practice a bit of agriculture. Various climate change projections for Africa say droughts will become more frequent and intense.

“Country-specific models are yet to be developed, [so] we don’t know of the exact impact in various parts of Ethiopia, but Afar lies in the rain-shadow of the northern highlands,” said Tewolde Egziabher, who heads Ethiopia’s Environmental Protection Authority and is effectively Minister of the Environment.

No one in Undajara has heard of climate change, but for six consecutive years the rains have failed and green pasture is hard to find. The community is among the most chronically food insecure in Ethiopia and depends on food assistance.

Afar is covered by the government’s Productive Safety Net Programme, in which poor households receive cash or food for a six-month period, but Keloyta said life was getting tougher.

The Afar have been involved in bitter conflicts for many years with the Issa from the neighbouring Somali region. “Conflict … has limited grazing areas and increased the size of the buffer zone needed between the two conflicting groups,” said a 2009 food security outlook by the Famine Early Warning Systems Network of USAID.

Young Afar man with his Kalashnikov
Young Afar man with his Kalashnikov. Photo: Jaspreet Kindra/IRIN

Officials and pastoralists assure me that there are fewer conflicts now, but most of the men had Kalashnikovs slung over their shoulders. “An Afar wears a Kalashnikov like he wears clothes – it is part of his culture,” said one of the pastoralists.

Keloyta’s AK-47 rests against his ari. A paper by the Institute for Security Studies, an African think-tank, cited sources saying that 20 to 25 percent of adult Afars in Ethiopia own light arms, “and communities that live close to the Issa are relatively more armed”.

The way out

I am spending a day and a night with a community covered by the PCDP, which is trying to provide pastoralists with tools to improve their resilience and quality of life. The programme attempts to alleviate food insecurity and bridge the gap between development and relief; a multi-pronged approach is being implemented to improve disaster management and strengthen early warning systems in communities.

Pastoral land, unsuitable for agriculture, covers 61 percent of Ethiopia, and pastoralists account for 12 to 15 percent of the country’s around 83 million people, yet they were largely marginalized until the government began the 15-year project in 2003.

One of Keloyta’s six sons, proud of his braided hair and Afar culture, says he wants an education and perhaps a job in a town; life as a pastoralist is hard, not for him. Aysa agrees. She wants her daughters and grandchildren to get an education at a proper school too.

Unique approach

In the “community-driven development approach” of the PCDP, each community can decide what they want and access most of the funds for three projects in three consecutive years, but each household contributes as well. Assaye Legesse, senior agricultural economist at the World Bank, the major funder of the PCDP project, said the community put a school on their “wish-list”.

The households in Keloyta’s village have each contributed about US$22, roughly what they earn in a month. The contribution – five percent in cash and 10 percent in the form of material or labour – increases the sense of ownership in the intervention. The community manages the funds and the process, including purchasing materials for construction.

Handing over the financial reins to the community makes the project unique; moreover, there has not been a single instance of mismanagement. “The community can ask for a water-point, a school, a health post, a veterinary clinic, a small irrigation or range management project, or any other need it identifies,” said the World Bank’s consultant to the project, Esayas Nigatu, who is also a rural development specialist.

Keloyta’s community have dug canals to channel water from the nearby Mille River, a tributary of the Awash, a major Ethiopian river, to irrigate their maize crop. “We don’t go hungry now so much, like when I was only a pastoralist, but if there is no food we have milk,” Keloyta said.

The Afar region has a major river with two tributaries and several lakes, offering considerable potential for irrigation schemes, which the government has been developing. However, some people feel that these have benefited large commercial farmers and have displaced pastoral communities.

Ethiopia does not allow private ownership of land. Egziabher, the environment minister, said the government leased land to private farmers to beef up food production, but not at the expense of displacing subsistence farmers.

Ali Keloyta with his granddaughter
Ali Keloyta with his granddaughter. Life will be different for her. Photo: Jaspreet Kindra/IRIN

There has been some concern that pastoralists put fragile land under more stress when they turn to agriculture. “We conduct environmental impact feasibility studies before we initiate any small-scale irrigation scheme,” said the World Bank’s Legesse.

Less than one-fifth of the pastoral community in Ethiopia has access to basic social services such as health, veterinary services and schools, according to Assefa Tewodros, national coordinator of the PCDP project. A million pastoralists have so far benefited from the project, which has marked a significant shift from past approaches to help the community.

“Pastoralism is a centuries old way to adapt to the changing climate and, ironically, it is now under pressure,” said Legesse. “We don’t want to settle pastoralists … we are simply providing them with the tools … [that] will help to improve their lives and their food security.”

Previous strategies focused on livestock or rangeland, and getting pastoralists to breed their animals for commercial production, but “pastoralists cannot view livestock purely as a commercial investment,” said the World Bank’s Nigatu.

“Their livestock is a part of them, they make their livelihood from their animals and also, livestock is a matter of social prestige. Building on past experiences, PCDP puts the pastoral community in the heart of the programme.”

Diversify, diversify

PCDP’s interventions are designed to encourage the pastoralists to diversify so as to help them improve their standard of living and security. Livestock rearing and agriculture both depend on the increasingly erratic rain. “We want to reduce the community’s vulnerability to external shocks,” said an official.

“We are trying to get the pastoralists to consider developing other skills or getting involved in other trades,” said Legesse, noting that pastoralists in one of the most underdeveloped districts had built houses to rent out to government officials posted there. “They saw the gap – there was no conventional housing for the officials – and they moved in.”

Wendessen Gulelat, of the Pastoralist Forum Ethiopia, an NGO that complements the PCDP’s efforts, noted that “Until the project, no one had paid any attention to the needs of a pastoralist community.”

However, the project has been affected by a lack of capacity in government structures to support communities, largely due to the harsh working environment. “There is a very high staff turnover in Afar,” one official commented.

“We desperately need a good extension service for pastoralists’ livestock,” Gulelat said. “Look at how the Botswana government has done wonders for its livestock sector.” Ethiopia has one of the largest livestock populations in Africa.