Cattle dying, people next? – HeraldAM

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maciated cattle in southern Oromo region in drought-affected Ethiopia, close to Kenyan border (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

Emaciated cattle in Ethiopia’s drought-hit southern Oromo, close to the border with Kenya (Photo: Simon Roughneen)

MOYALE — Leaning on his walking stick, Shamsidin Mohamed flicks his fingers up and down in turn, alternating between whispering and counting out loud in his native Somali.

By the time he has finished, he tots-up 23 cattle dead out of a herd of 70. It is a catastrophic loss. These herders are dependent on their animals for food and income. No agriculture is possible in such a barren, rock-strewn and sun-dried place, more lunar than earthly in appearance.

“This is very dangerous here. Just a little rain, but no pasture for the animals. Most people can’t count the dead animals. We have to move many kilometres every day looking for pasture, water. The animals are weak, they die in the bush, sometimes people don’t know when and where,” he said.

The vital winter rains failed across southern Ethiopia, northern Kenya and much of Somalia, leaving Shamsidin and 8 million others in this vast desolate region balancing precariously between subsistence and destitution.

Here, with people utterly dependent on herding animals for food and income, destitution in turn makes starvation a grim possibility. With their skin stretched taut over protruding ribcages and clavicles, the cattle are emaciated, shuffling along with their heads bowed, as if lacking the strength to see where the herder is taking them.

With livestock death and high rates of malnutrition visible among people, pre-famine conditions prevail in Ethiopia, in northern Kenya and in Somalia.

People are not entirely helpless however. Shamsidin paid 500 Ethiopian birr to have his remaining cattle trucked further north toward Ethiopia’s lush highlands. His uncle lives near Dubluk, a town 60km north on the road to Addis Ababa. Shamsidin hopes that he can graze his cattle there for the meantime.

However the usual coping mechanisms people use to deal with drought here have been overwhelmed by the latest dry spell. Food insecurity is endemic in Ethiopia, with over 5 million people needing food aid most years.

This year’s drought has compounded the cumulative effects of on-off droughts over the past few years. Shamsidin is relatively privileged to have the option and resources to truck his animals to pastures greener.

For most of the 2.6 million Oromo and Somali Ethiopians affected by the drought, such relative luxures do not exist. The same applies for the 3.5 million Kenyans and 2 million Somalis affected by the drought. And even for Shamsidin, moving the animals is no guarantee that his herd will remain intact.

It will take him years to recover from the losses incurred thus far. However the immediate future is even bleaker for most of those affected by this drought. Animals are weak. This means for the minority of herders who farm land as well – agro-pastoralists – getting the land ploughed before the latest infrequent and light rains finish is a challenge.

The cattle just cannot plough quickly enough. Months of insufficient food and water has left them literally buckling under the yoke.

And for the majority who cannot farm, selling weakened and dying animals is not an option. In any case cattle prices have plummeted, almost in morbid proportion to the decline in the animals health and the morale of the people.

With the UN having launched an almost US$500 billion appeal for the drought crisis, the hope is that the “international community” will provide the necessary funding to offset this potential disaster.

That’s the price put on saving lives now in Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia. That much apparently can be counted. But for so many, the head-count that matters – of their dead animals – means imminent destitution, and possible famine. And for many of these people, even counting the dead animals is impossible. The fear is we could soon be talking about a headcount of dead people.

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