BUIA, DJIBOUTI, 7 Jul 2005 (IRIN) - Few people want to become refugees, but Ibrahim Mohammed, a pastoralist from Djibouti's Afar ethnic group, says he has no option.
All but two of his flock of 100 sheep and goats have died from drought this year, he says, so he is moving to Ethiopia. "We will become refugees there," he says. "In Ethiopia, they receive food aid every month, not every three months like here in Djibouti."
Djibouti, a tiny country in the Horn of Africa, is generally arid, but parts of it have been suffering an intensive drought for more than two years.
IRIN met Ibrahim, 48, in Buia, where there had been no rain for eight months. As a result, Buia's 600 Afar families had lost practically all their livestock and by mid-June, were surviving on food received in April from a local army post.
Most were getting ready to shift across the unmarked desert border into Ethiopia, where they hoped a local sultan would help them. In better years, they said they paid the sultan grazing rights.
"The sultan will give us work," said Ibrahim. "Once the rains come back, relatives will give us some animals so that we can start over again. I hope they still do have animals."
Migration, work, largesse are mechanisms that pastoralists have relied on seasonal support for generations. Age-old coping mechanisms are, however, being eroded, says an anthropologist at Djibouti's Interior Ministry.
"Since the conflicts in Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia, movements of the pastoralists are more restricted," says Guedda Mohamed Ahmed. "The continuing drought in the Horn of Africa has further stopped migration in many places, and the land has been eroded. Even if it rains, grass hardly grows."
The endangered Adala forest near Buia illustrates this. It has been attacked by pastoralists chopping branches off its few remaining trees to feed their livestock.
Once the forest disappears, experts say, the pastoralists around Buia will have nowhere else to graze and water their animals during drought.
FEWS Net, a humanitarian group which assesses Djibouti's vulnerable areas, estimates that half of all goats and sheep in Djibouti have died this year. Those that still alive have stopped producing milk, the staple food of pastoralist families.
FOOD AID SHORT
At the same time, food aid has run short.
"We ran out of stock for June, and expect the next shipment of food aid only in July," says Fatma Samoura of the UN World Food Programme (WFP) in Djibouti. "There will be months when we will not distribute."
At the end of April, Semoura launched an urgent appeal for 5,000 mt more food aid.
Six months earlier, UN agencies had reckoned about 11,000 people would need aid. Then the rains failed once more, and WFP was suddenly faced with an emergency - close to 50,000 people needing assistance.
When rains fail, at least a third of Djibouti's population of 650,000, are directly affected.
"Djibouti would like to solve the food security problem itself, but we don't have the necessary capacity, and after many disasters no money," says Ayanne Hassan, spokeswoman for Djibouti's President, Omar Guelleh,
The government's disaster response agency ONARS (National Office for Refugees and Disaster Victims) lacks equipment and cash to bring aid to the drought victims.
"Their twenty year-old trucks break down before they reach the outskirts of Djibouti city," says Harbi Omar, a Programme Officer for the UN Development Programme.
In Tadjourah district, north of Djibouti city, grass has all but vanished. Drought-resistant acacia trees are bare of any foliage, and it is unbearably hot -- up to 50 degrees centigrade.
About 30,000 of the 80,000 people living in the district are drought-effected, according to Tadjourah's District Commissioner, Abdourazack Daoud Ahmed.
Different villages bore evidence of the severity of the drought and its effects on people. Even wealthy families had lost thousands of livestock.
One man, Houmed Ali, said his wife and two small daughters had died about nine months before. "I had no camel or donkey to fetch water," he said.
The World Health Organization, WHO, says it had requested US $160,000 to fund two mobile health teams to help reduce malnutrition in Djibouti's most drought-affected areas -- but so far without any response.
"Of great concern, are children from five to seven," says Dr Jihan Tawilak, WHO head in Djibouti. "They are old enough to take care of animals and stay in the bush with little food all day. They are not yet in school, where they could get supplementary food."
The last reliable figures on malnutrition in Djibouti are from a household survey in 2002. They showed acute malnutrition at 5.9 percent, which is emergency level, and global malnutrition at 17.9 percent.
"We believe that the situation has deteriorated further since then," says Thomas Davin, Programme Co-ordinator of the UN Children's Fund. "But it is difficult to assess what is an emergency, and what is a chronic development problem."
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