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Africa's Growing Water Crisis: A Dwindling Existence for Africa’s Pastoralists

Frontline World is featuring the Pulitzer Center-sponsored reporting from the Common Language Project as part of a feature highlighting the human consequences of climate change. See their multi-media presentation from CLP and explore the issue of "The Human Consequences of A Warming Planet"

On a warm afternoon in the pastoral settlement of Dubluck in southern Ethiopia, thousands of livestock stand in idle groups waiting to drink. They’ve been herded dozens of miles by their minders to find the nearest fresh water supply.

Behind the mass of thirsty animals, more cattle, camels and goats pour down the hillside toward this ancient complex of hand-dug wells. These deep wells offer the only source of water in an increasingly harsh landscape, where barren earth and brittle thorn bushes offer constant proof of drought.

Locals in Ethiopia's arid lowlands report that rainfall is decreasing and wells are drying up.

Galgalo Dida, the deputy chief of Dubluck, has seen many droughts in his life. But the last few years have brought some of the shortest rainy seasons in memory.

“The animals are starting to die in many places,” says Dida. “We have nothing to feed them on. We live in critical fear now.”

Further south, in the Somali region of Ethiopia, the situation is equally dire. Mohammed Hassan, a tall, middle-aged man with a bright orange beard, explains how local weather patterns have changed.

“Annual rainfall is falling and even springs are drying out,” says Hassan, who is the tribal head of the Gare, a clan of some 475,000 people spread across Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia. Their only option is to dig deeper to find water, sometimes to 100 feet or more below the dusty surface. Traditional wells, some of them dug 300 to 400 years ago, are disappearing at alarming rates. In one village in just a few years, nine wells have been covered by sand erosion, and the village has no means of reclaiming them.

Hassan admits that people, livestock and deforestation have added to the water shortages, but he and other local leaders have no answers for the rising temperatures experienced in recent years.

“Last year it rained for only two days,” says local area chief Ibrahim Ganamo, lifting two fingers in the air and shaking his head. Statistics are hard to come by, but Ganamo says that, last year, people lost 80 percent of their livestock.

Strained resources and loss of livestock have also increased tensions between communities who are increasingly competing for the same dwindling supplies of water and pasture.

In June 2006, conflict erupted in southern Ethiopia between the Borena and the Guji people, when the Guji laid claim to Borena land. Hundreds were killed, and 23,000 people were forced to flee the area. There’s been intermittent fighting ever since, and easy access to automatic weapons has only added to the violence.

A Vulnerable Continent

The plight of Ethiopia’s pastoralists reflects concerns raised in the landmark 2007 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which forecast that Africa would be the continent at greatest risk from global warming.

The report noted: “Although Africa, of all the major world regions, has contributed the least to potential climate change because of its low per capita fossil energy use and hence low greenhouse gas emissions, it is the most vulnerable continent to climate change because widespread poverty limits capabilities to adapt.”

According to the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, half of the 314 million Africans who live on less than $1 a day rely heavily on their livestock to survive, and 80 percent of those people live in pastoral areas.

Looking for Solutions

Tribal leader Hassan believes that one way to reduce the violence is to help educate people to mix traditional livestock farming with more efficient modern techniques. His council members now teach the community about the effects of deforestation and hold inter-tribal meetings to help resolve conflict.

“What is happening in Africa today is a warning to the world,” says Negusu Aklilu, director of Ethiopia’s Forum for the Environment. “We do not have to ask whether climate change is happening. Climate change is real.”

A report by Christian Aid, a nongovernmental group that has been working with pastoralists in Ethiopia and Kenya, predicts that they will be some of the first people to lose their livelihood due to climate change.

Ernest Waititu's report, "A Dwindling Existence for Africa’s Pastoralists," originally appeared in The Indypendent. "The People of Haramaya: After the Lake" radio report originally aired on World Vision Report. The slideshow about Haramaya Lake was originally published on the 1h20.org website.