Djibouti: Pastoralists' way of life at risk

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By Alex Wynter

A combination of population pressure, desertification and above all drought is forcing Djibouti pastoralists out of their traditional grazing lands to live in improvised settlements near the capital city.

Rural conditions in the small Horn of Africa nation at the mouth of the Red Sea are approaching the point where the pastoralist way of life itself - in which people are almost entirely dependent on their animals - might soon no longer be viable.

"Distress sales" of privately-owned cattle, sheep and goats are becoming more and more common as people move toward Djibouti city in the hope of finding casual work or humanitarian aid.

These are the preliminary conclusions of an interdisciplinary Federation assessment team - including experts on nutrition, agriculture, health, relief, water and sanitation, and livelihoods - which is visiting the Horn of Africa, where an estimated 17 million people need emergency assistance before the end of the year.

The team is helping the region's National Societies plan ways to scale up their relief efforts to meet what many observers continue to regard as the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.

The team travelled to Ethiopia from Djibouti last week, and hope to go on to Sudan and Eritrea.

"Distress sales"

"Many of Djibouti's pastoralists have effectively become 'environmental refugees' in their own country," said Tarun Sarwal, a British Red Cross recovery delegate seconded to the team.

"We're all experienced people and we've seen the worst of the worst poverty in many parts of the world," he added, "but even we struggled to see how these people are surviving."

The Djibouti Red Crescent and its volunteers are ready and willing to do more, team members say, but like other National Societies in the region they are desperately short of resources.

Robert Fraser, a water and sanitation specialist who lived there 20 years ago, says Djibouti city is now "completely surrounded by 'informal settlements', inhabited by people who have fled the countryside in desperation.

"The people we met in the rural hinterland are literally clinging on to what has to be seen as a dying way of life because of the loss of water sources and pasture.

"But if the situation were reversed somehow, I'm sure they would go back the next day."

Once livestock losses pass a certain point, recovery becomes all but impossible, the team heard. A growing number of people in Djibouti have now passed that threshold.

The UN's September "Horn of Africa Alert" reported that rainfall in Djibouti was "50 per cent below normal", and the Federation team were told that rains in both biannual seasons for the past two years had failed.

Climate shock

Like many other city-dwellers throughout the Horn of Africa, Djibouti's settled urban population are also struggling to cope with sky-high food-price inflation; it's now running at an extraordinary 350 per cent a year there.

"Global acute malnutrition" in children under five is now 17 per cent, with peaks of 25 per cent in the north-west, according to the UN, while the authorities estimate that 265,000 people also need emergency water supplies - the majority of them in urban areas.

The Horn of Africa is bedevilled by a cocktail of factors, including climate shock, conflict in some areas, population pressure, and runaway food and fuel-price inflation that has hit the urban and rural poor alike.

The Federation mission comes amid early warnings of intensified drought to come for the rest of the year.

A recent seasonal forecast from the International Research Institute for Climate and Society (IRI) at New York's Columbia University, which specializes in integrating climate information into humanitarian decision-making, said there is an "increased probability of below-normal rainfall east of longitude 40 degrees east", which bisects Ethiopia and runs down central Kenya.

Meanwhile, the 2 October outlook from Ethiopia's National Meteorology Agency similarly indicated the possibility of "below-normal" rains in already food-insecure areas of the country like the Somali region, the Oromia lowlands, south-east SNNPR and northern Afar.