27-year-old Humed Ahmed Mohamed lives in the village of Hamblemar in Afar, north-west Ethiopia. Life here is very difficult and most basic services are non-existent. There is no school and no health centre. There used to be a hand-pump but that stopped working about a year ago and now people have to collect water from the river, one hour away.
Like most other people in Afar in northern Ethiopia, Humed makes a living as a pastoralist, owning goats, cattle and camels that provide him and his family with food and an income. Few people in the region grow crops, so pastoralists sell their animals to buy maize and vegetables, as well as any other commodities they need.
But like other areas across east Africa, Afar is in the grip of a cycle of deadly droughts that have wiped out these precious animals and threatened the pastoralists’ very existence.
“For the last few years this region has suffered from serious droughts. We used to be able to sell our livestock to help us get through difficult times, but many hard, dry seasons have killed our livestock and left us with nothing,” said Humed.
“This year the rains failed again. The river that ran near our village dried up and we had to walk for four hours to reach the nearest water source. The water there was dirty and many people became ill and died from waterborne diseases. Diseases like typhoid and diarrhoea became a friend of everyone.”
Humed said, “The problem is that there is no health centre nearby. We carried the ill on our shoulders to Ewa but the clinic there has very little medicine to help them, so we had to wait until someone could take us to a hospital.
“My uncle also fell ill during this time and we had to take a packed truck to Dessie, 210 kilometres away, standing all the way. Thankfully he recovered but without resolving the issue of water, I’m sure these problems will occur again.”
Forced to migrate
The drought also left the livestock with no pasture and the people with no choice but to migrate if they were to save the few animals that remained.
“As the drought got worse many members of my village and neighbouring areas decided to move up into the highlands where there was more pasture for our animals, and we stayed there for three months,” said Humed.
“The people in the area where we settled are from a different ethnic group to us and there were many tensions between us. There was conflict because our animals were eating their pasture, and many people physically attacked each other.”
Despite the many difficulties they face, Humed and other members of his community have decided to establish a co-operative to try to find solutions to their problems. Taking inspiration from nearby villages, they decided to set up a scheme to irrigate their land, allowing them to grow crops and fodder.
“We saw that another village had set up an irrigation system and the difference it had made. That village used to have just a small number of animals but after the canals were built the numbers increased, while the livestock in our own village rapidly decreased.”
Crops dried up
“We were already cultivating some mangoes and hot peppers but because of the drought this year they did not grow. So we started to build our own canals to bring water from the river to our land. There are 25 members in our group and together we cleaned and prepared the land, and then dug the canals. But floods washed these away and now we need to repair and extend them.
“We also need help to pump the water up from the river to the land,” said Humed. “I am the head of the committee and we have a management team that will ensure all the resources are used properly. But we need help with equipment, tools and training.”
Islamic Relief support
Islamic Relief is supporting this new co-operative and six others like it in Afar by helping to register them with the government as well as providing technical support to help them build the canals, and supplying water pumps, seeds and tools.
“I am glad that Islamic Relief is helping us and providing us with the tools we need. Once we have started to irrigate the land I hope to be able to grow cash crops I can sell at market like pepper, maize and fruits. I will also be able to feed my children with good food. Once this has been done then may be we can start tackling other problems like healthcare and education”
Fears for the future
Unfortunately schemes like this will become more and more of a necessity in arid areas like Afar as the frequency and intensity of drought continues to increase, leaving pastoralists like Humed with no way to cope or survive.
“These harsh dry, hard seasons started about ten years ago and have happened every year since,” said Humed. “From my experience the next ten years will be even worse, with more drought, more animal deaths and more people falling ill and fighting each other. I don’t know what is causing this, only God knows that.
“I don’t want to give up the pastoralist way of life and hope that this new scheme will allow us to grow crops to eat and sell,” said Humed. “But I don’t want my children to be like me, just following their animals. I want them to study, to grow crops and to be able to keep animals like we have always done.”