Sustainable water and pasture management to alleviate the plight of Ethiopian pastoralists

A group of Ethiopian men and women beside a half dried-up pool of water, using picks and shovels to dig new basins.
Borana locals helping to rehabilitate water points so they can cope better with drought and improve their incomes. © Helvetas

Drought, fodder scarcity and conflicts over natural resources make life difficult for pastoralists in southern Ethiopia. The SDC has taken various measures to improve their food security and their resilience to crisis situations, ranging from the rehabilitation of pastureland and water points to the introduction of land use plans and the diversification of income sources for women.

Country/region Topic Period Budget
Agriculture & food security
Conflict & fragility
Climate change and environment

Agricultural land resources
Household food security
Conflict prevention
Disaster risk reduction DRR
01.06.2015 - 30.09.2022
CHF  9’288’920

Obbo Dhoketa Gadhafo, a pastoralist from the Borana zone in southern Ethiopia, recalls: « 20 to 40 years ago, this land was not like now. There was plenty of pasture and water, and the livestock were few in numbers.» He remembers a time when animals and pastures thrived there: regular rains meant there was no shortage of milk, butter and other animal products. But, he says, things started to change around the end of the 1990s: climate change has made the rain scarcer and less reliable, droughts have increased, as have the number of livestock and the population density. «As a result of all this, the pastureland has steadily deteriorated over the years, and now we can hardly find enough fodder for our cattle.»

The situation described by Obbo Dhoketa Gadhafo is being faced by many other pastoralists in the country. Their pastureland, which covers over 60% of the surface area of Ethiopia, is severely affected by increasingly frequent droughts, conflicts between nomadic herders and sedentary farmers for the country's natural resources, and the degradation of pastureland – whether through overgrazing, bush encroachment or soil erosion. The consequences are dramatic: a decrease in productivity and an increase in poverty, hunger and water shortages. In the Borana zone alone, more than 200,000 people have too little to eat. In some seasons, up to 80% of households are affected by famine.

Support for 71,000 people in 12,000 households

In an effort to remedy this, the SDC launched in 2016 the project 'Sustainable natural resources management for enhanced pastoralist food security in the Borana zone', implemented by an NGO consortium led by Helvetas in cooperation with the Ethiopian authorities. Through more sustainable management of natural resources, the project aims to improve the long-term food security of pastoralist communities in the Borana zone and strengthen their resilience to crisis situations such as drought and famine. Overall, these measures are set to benefit almost 12,000 households with some 71,000 people.

Measures are being taken at different levels simultaneously. For example, plans for the sustainable use of pastureland are being drawn up in association with the pastoralist communities concerned. Based on these plans, measures are being taken to improve the quality of the land – such as clearing bushes and planting fodder crops instead of plants that cannot be used to feed cattle. A rotation system will ensure that pastures are no longer used unchecked in the future, giving the soil time to recover.

Access to drinking water for people and animals is at least just as important. A large number of water holes and reservoirs are therefore being cleared of mud and rehabilitated, with the local population actively contributing to this work. Filters and treatment plants are also being used to make the water drinkable. In addition, an information campaign is being run to discourage people from defecating in the open, which is the cause of numerous diseases.

Training opportunities specifically for women

The project places particular focus on the situation of women in the pastoralist community, traditionally dominated by men. For instance, it ensures that women's concerns are heard by official bodies and community institutions. Courses are held to teach women how to cultivate high-value foodstuffs and animal fodder. Other courses in subjects such as poultry rearing, beekeeping and business management enable women to create new sources of income for themselves and their families.

All of these measures are long-term in nature. However, the project, which has a duration of five years, also has a short-term component: a fund for emergency measures in crisis situations. This fund was already drawn on in 2017 shortly after the project was launched, to cope with the devastating drought. This meant that hundreds of households received fodder and veterinary medicines as an emergency measure. Pastoralist Obbo Dhoketa Gadhafo is grateful for the swift aid received in time of need. As he points out, this saved many animals which otherwise would have perished.