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Pastoralists: moving with the times?

Exceptionally dry conditions in the Horn of Africa have led to a severe shortage of water and pasture for livestock (WRENmedia)
Exceptionally dry conditions in the Horn of Africa have led to a severe shortage of water and pasture for livestock
WRENmedia

With children severely malnourished, animals weak or dying, and people struggling to find water, exceptionally dry conditions in the Horn of Africa have added to the cumulative effect of three to four consecutive seasons of poor or failed rains. Severe shortages of pasture and water, combined with high food prices, have left an estimated 24 million people in the region currently food insecure. For the many pastoralists affected, the drought is the worst in living memory.

The situation in northern Kenya and beyond is evidence to some that pastoralists will be among the most vulnerable groups affected by climate change as rangelands and water sources dry up. But others ascertain that, as pastoralists have traditionally evolved to cope with scarce resources and uncertain agro-ecological conditions, they are well-suited to adapt to their changing environment.

A fixed abode

The Tuareg nomads, for example, are well adapted to the dry marginal land of the Sahel but as rainfall becomes increasingly unpredictable, many are losing their livestock and traditional lands are becoming progressively more degraded. Rather than lose their way of life, however, pastoralist communities in Niger are being supported by TEARFUND and its partner JEMED* to establish 'fixation' points. These sites provide a settlement area where schools, health centres, water dykes and grain banks are established. Pasture management associations to protect and improve pastureland are also created.

Over 20 fixation sites now exist across the Sahel. Access to services allow families to survive the toughest periods in the year and, increasingly, women and children stay at the camps, whilst the men continue a nomadic lifestyle with their livestock. During drought periods, communities are advised to sell their animals, retaining only the best breeding stock. Consequently, families have lost a third less livestock than others in neighbouring areas.

Adapting to change

Capable of surviving long periods without water and able to browse on trees as well as pasture, camels are well-adapted to drought (WRENmedia)
Capable of surviving long periods without water and able to browse on trees as well as pasture, camels are well-adapted to drought
WRENmedia

In the Ethiopian Borana rangelands, pastoralists have retained their nomadic ways but are replacing their cattle herds with camels, which feed on trees as well as grasses and can survive longer periods without water. For other pastoralist groups, adapting involves adopting alternative livelihood options, although income-generating opportunities are often limited in remote dryland areas. Lack of market access for adding value to livestock products is a common constraint.

In the long-term it is possible that pastoralists may even benefit by climate change. A substantial increase in rainfall, as predicted by some climate models for East Africa after 2020, would provide more dry-season pasture and longer access to wet-season pasture. However, negative impacts are still likely with higher temperatures resulting in greater heat and disease stress for livestock, and the possibility that as land becomes more favourable for agriculture, pastoralists will face even greater competition for their land.

The benefits of pastoralism

Looking ahead to the UN summit at Copenhagen, it is timely to consider the role of pastoralism in limiting the extent of global climate change. If adequately supported, good rangeland management helps to restore degraded lands and improve carbon sequestration. Rangelands also provide valuable ecosystem services by sustaining vital biodiversity and providing opportunities for income from wildlife tourism.

In East Africa, 90 percent of meat consumed comes from pastoral herds and, in Kenya alone, the sector is estimated to be worth US$800 million. However, years of inappropriate development policies and political marginalisation have hindered pastoralists' ability to build resilience against climate change. The potential of pastoralism to contribute to economic growth and provide sustainable stewardship of drylands continues to be overlooked by policymakers.

Planning for change

Good rangeland management helps to restore degraded lands and improve carbon sequestration (WRENmedia)
Good rangeland management helps to restore degraded lands and improve carbon sequestration
WRENmedia

But if the political will is to be mobilised, much more needs to be done to recognise pastoralist's rights over their land, and to allow pastoralists to be heard. For example, a pioneering climate-change related initiative in Kenya and Mali, led by SOS Sahel, aims to help pastoral communities communicate their ideas more effectively to those in power and to put local people in control of planning for changes in their environment.

In addition, early warning systems for drought and floods need to be strengthened. Kenya reportedly has one of the strongest early warning systems in sub-Saharan Africa. And yet the current failure in Kenya's drought management system is partly blamed on the slow response of government and donor agencies to early alerts.

Worldwide, two-fifths of the earth's land is categorised as drylands and pastoralism is evidently crucial to the wellbeing of millions of people who depend on these arid lands. However, it is clear that the full implications of climate change on pastoralists are not yet well understood and much remains to be done if pastoralists are build resilience and adapt or be given a choice to settle for something other than an increasingly precarious future.

*JEMED - Jeunesse En Mission Entraide et Développement

Date published: September 2009

 

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The New Agriculturist is a WRENmedia production.

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