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Communities in Ethiopia’s Somali Region face chronic drought linked to climate change

  • September 23, 2019

Three times a day, Sara Saban walks under the burning sun to fetch water for her family. Close to her village in the center of Ethiopia’s Somali Region, women, children and men line up in front of the only available well within walking distance. Their donkeys patiently wait as they fill their yellow jerry cans with water. A few meters away, others dig a hole in the dried-out riverbed to collect what little murky water they can find.

“The underground water is very limited because we are facing a drought,” Sara, a mother of ten, told DW. “The water quality is also very bad, so sometimes we suffer from stomach-related illnesses.”

Livestock dwindling

The Somali Region has suffered from chronic drought for several years, with the worst stretch recorded in 2016, from which many households have yet to recover. This year the short rainy season known as the ‘belg’, which typically lasts from March to May, once again failed to provide much-anticipated ground water. The livestock have already started to die.

In a dried out riverbed, people are trying to dig and find the little underground water that is left (DW/M. Gerth-Niculescu)

After another failed rainy season, people have resorted to digging for underground water in dried-out riverbeds

This has had catastrophic consequences for the pastoral communities which make up the majority of the Somali population. They rely on cattle and other farm mammals for their livelihood: Selling them at the market, drinking their milk and eating their meat.

Since the beginning of the year, Sara lost one cow, 20 goats and five sheep. “It rained for only five days, and they were very small showers, so the grass did not grow enough to feed the livestock,” she explains.

Assistance not always enough

To counter the effects of the drought, the Ethiopian government has to rely of the help of NGO’s and the United Nations (UN). The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) recently distributed livestock medicine and feed to 79,000 households. But it’s still not enough for everybody. 

“We don’t have the capacity to respond [to drought] at the government level,” Tahir Beder Farah, the livestock officer for the Lasdenkeyre district, told DW. “We have our own resources but the drought impact is huge and the feed price is very high. So although we have our own [response] plan, that plan is not enough for our community.”

During prolonged periods of drought, animals become more vulnerable to diseases. Herds mingle more as water sources are scarce, increasing the risk of contagion. Swift and adequate treatment of their livestock becomes a priority for farmers.

Ahmed Mohammed, FAO Somali Region field coordinator and livestock officer (DW/M. Gerth-Niculescu)

Ahmed Mohammed, the FAO’s Somali Region field coordinator and livestock officer, says protecting livestock is a priority during periods of extended drought

“Cattle are the most vulnerable to drought, followed by sheep and goats,” says Ahmed Mohammed, FAO’s Somali Region field coordinator. “If we don’t protect the core breeding animals at this stage of the drought, this will lead to mass mortality of animals and the families will be stripped of their livelihood assets. Rebuilding these lost livelihoods later on will be an enormous task, so it is less expensive and more efficient to protect and save livelihoods before they are lost.”

According to Tahir Beder Farah, the FAO’s response was delayed by a month, which may explain why livestock mortality was higher than expected. But despite the assistance, tens of thousands of households still have not received adequate support, making their cattle prone to malnourishment, displacement and death. 

However, those households who did receive emergency aid have already experienced improvements in their living conditions. After receiving livestock feed at the beginning of the month, Mahaba Ibrahim, a mother of eight, felt relieved when she was able to resume milking her two cows. “Before, our cows had no milk,” she told DW. “But now we are able to get milk for our children and the cattle’s condition is improving.”

A group of woman fetch water out of a well in Ethiopia's drought-stricken Somali region (DW/M. Gerth-Niculescu)

A group of women use donkeys to help them fetch what little water they can out of the nearest well

Persistent drought linked to climate change

The feed is supposed to last at least three months. However, families are still worried that the rainy season will continue to fail in the years ahead. This fear has been reinforced by climate experts, who say they have noticed a correlation between recurring droughts in the region and climate change.

“Our research has strongly suggested that climate change has contributed to this decline [in rainfall],” research geographer Chris Funk from the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET) told DW. “FEWS NET research has advanced a clear causal explanation linking warming in the Western Pacific to increased rainfall near Indonesia and disruptions in the East African long rains.”

Read more: Water and climate change: ‘Era of stable abundance is over’

Mahaba Ibrahim sits in front of her house with her baby in Ethiopia (DW/M. Gerth-Niculescu)

Mahaba Ibrahim says she and he young family have benefited from assistance. But she is still worried about future rainy seasons

According to Funk, this trend is likely to continue in the years ahead. “The data suggests we should assume that the current increase in drought frequencies will persist,” he explains. “This is a little less scary than assuming that the trend will continue, but it’s still pretty grim. Just assuming [drought will persist] in Ethiopia suggests we will likely see about six poor seasons over the next ten years.”

In the Somali Region, up to 350,000 people have already been displaced from their home due to climate-related factors. This number is likely to increase in the coming years.

In the meantime, Mahaba says she is praying for heavy rains in October, which will provide the pastoral communities with much-needed relief.

  • Journalistentraining in Somaliland Juli 2017 (DW Akademie/H. Weithöner )

    Media coverage in times of drought

    Multimedia Coverage

    East Africa has undergone one of the worst droughts in more than 60 years and Somaliland has been one of the affected regions. To help provide local communities with vital information, 16 local journalists working mainly for TV, radio or print were trained in multimedia reporting.

  • Journalistentraining in Somaliland (DW Akademie/H. Weithöner)

    Media coverage in times of drought

    Training for video reporters

    Participants included five women journalists who picked up a camera for the first time. When it came to producing a video report, technical obstacles were less an issue than learning a different approach. They wanted to know, for example, how to visualize a story without using too many words.

  • Journalistentraining in Somaliland Juli 2017 (DW Akademie/H. Weithöner )

    Media coverage in times of drought

    Interview training

    The scarcity of food and water in some of Somalilands’s regions could lead to a devastating famine. With crops and entire harvests being lost and herds dying of thirst, tens of thousands of people have fled their homes. Journalists looked at how to deliver drought information to help the local population, and how to record an interview – for example here at the Waraf water point.

  • Journalistentraining in Somaliland Juli 2017 (DW Akademie/H. Weithöner )

    Media coverage in times of drought

    Talking to the village elder

    As part of the interview training participants looked for interesting individuals and settled on the village elder. They asked him to describe the extent of the current water shortage and whether he had ever experienced a drought like this before. The journalists required translators since few understood the elder’s dialect.

  • Journalistentraining in Somaliland Juli 2017 (DW Akademie/H. Weithöner )

    Media coverage in times of drought

    Video editing session

    Which camera angles and settings are best? After a day of shooting near Hargeisa, the journalists learned the basics of video editing – and that discussing the selection of pictures was part of the process.

  • Journalistentraining in Somaliland Juli 2017 (DW Akademie/H. Weithöner )

    Media coverage in times of drought

    Discussing the results

    The journalists now want to use audio and video reporting to tell their stories and use social media networks to reach a younger audience. The participants were chosen by the Somaliland Journalists Association (SOLJA). The training was funded by Deutsche Welle.


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