Ethiopia: Issa suffer from massive cattle deaths and conflict with Afar over scarce resources


Shinille Zone Somali Region
Assessment Mission: 16 - 21 July 2002

By Abraham Sewonet, UN-Emergencies Unit for Ethiopia

1 Introduction and background

Shinille zone is part of Somali region and borders Djibouti and Somaliland in the north and east respectively; Jijiga zone in the southeast, and Oromiya and Afar regions in the south and west respectively. The zone is part of the arid and semi-arid lowlands north of the Hararghe highlands. A few mountains and shrubs can be seen along the mid-highland areas of Oromiya region. The dominant clan group in the zone is the nomadic Issa. Gurgura, Gedabursi and Hawiya clan groups are also the agropastoral residents in the zone. Five of the six woreda-towns are located along the Djibouti-Addis Ababa railway line. Some villages of Afdem and Mieso woredas are situated slightly off the main Awash-Mille road.

Somali region, Shinille and Jijiga zones receive the main gu rains from March to May. Karan rains are also received from July to September. Due to its higher altitude, however, Jijiga zone receives more rain than Shinille. Some mountainous areas of the zone do receive 'hey' rains in the month of December (Abdi, 2001).

Following various reports from government, NGOs1 and UN agencies that indicated acute water and pasture shortage in some areas of Shinille zone and its devastating consequence on pastoral livelihood, the UN Emergencies Unit for Ethiopia (UN-EUE) undertook a field mission to look at the above issue by concentrating on the worst hit parts of the zone. Particular attention has been given to those areas that are adjacent to Afar region such as Afdem and Mieso woredas.

The current problems in Shinille zone are from different origins. To begin with, in Ayisha woreda the main reason for the current drought is inadequate gu rainfall. This year the overall performance of the gu rain has been rated poor throughout the zone. In Ayisha woreda, Lasarat is the most severely affected locality due to a shortage of water.

Secondly, Mieso and Afdem woredas are suffering both from shortage of the main rainfall but, more importantly, due to conflict with the Afar over water and pasture resources. Due to the latter, the Somali Issas no longer have access to their traditional water points and grazing lands. The most severely affected areas are Gedamaytu in Mieso woreda and Adeytu and Unduftu in Afdem woreda that are situated east of the Gewane-Mille road in Afar region.

2 Mission results

2.1 Human suffering and substantial animal deaths due to lack of water and pasture

2.1.1 Ayisha woreda: Water shortage due to inadequate gu rains

Culturally Ayisha town is considered as an important locality for Somali people in general. It is believed that the town is the most ancient Issa place and the place of origin of the Issa clan ancestors (Abdi, 2001).

Agroecologically, Ayisha is arid to semi-arid lowlands with low rainfall. While 90% of its people are nomadic pastoralists who make their living by rearing cattle and camels, a few people are engaged in various income generating activities including illegal business such as smuggling across the borders of Somaliland and Djibouti. A few kilometres away from Ayisha town there is a Somali refugee camp supported by UNHCR. Some non-refugee people are said to be also benefiting from the refugee camp assistance.

Due to delayed gu rains in Ayisha woreda this year, severe shortage of water is noted. The severity is most serious approximately 17 kilometres from Ayisha town in a kebele called Lasarat. Quite a large concentration of animals and humans were observed around water wells that are completely dry now. About 10 water wells for 50 households are available in the village and none of these water points have a drop of water. Many people have left the village for nearby places such as Degego in search of water. Grazing land for cattle is only available very far away from Lasarat (about one day walk one way). On the very day of the mission's arrival to the area, a truck transported water. The truck is from the regional DPPB in Jijiga but the water is brought from a private water well owner in Ayisha town. As the water is not free of charge, money is becoming a burning issue, as there is no budget allocated for it. The water is distributed for both urban and the surrounding rural residents and this is creating tension between the two groups as water becomes scarce.

2.1.2 Afdem and Mieso woredas: Conflict over resources with Afar

Afdem and Mieso woredas are remote woredas farthest from Dire Dawa and Shinille zone. Afdem woreda has arid and semi-arid land in the north and western parts. One can also see bushy and mountainous plains along the south and eastern parts of the woreda. It shares a border with Afar and Oromiya regions but they are ill defined and often cause conflict over resources. Most of the areas in the woredas are inaccessible due to poor road infrastructure and the people have few business relationships with other parts of the zone.

The UN-EUE mission observed a lot of dead cattle in Gedamaytu (Mieso woreda), and Unduftu (Afdem woreda)2. While these losses are due to water and pasture shortage, the main reason is the recent conflict between the Afar and the Issa. The latest conflict broke out when the Afar attacked the Issa who were around the Awash River and the Afar stole about 400 cattle from the Issas. Accordingly, quite a number of Issas lost access to traditional water points and grazing lands. In Gedamaytu, the traditional water sources of the Issa used to be around Keleale in Adaitou (see annexed map) but now the Afar have occupied the place and therefore the Issa have been forced to leave and relocate to Dawadit, west of Unduftu, where little water and pasture is available. According to the Issa community leaders, they can only survive a few weeks in Dawadit, then they will have to come back to Keleale. Hence, renewed clashes are already predicted. There are about 30 privately owned birkeds (cemented underground water tanks) in Gedamaytu town. Traditionally water used to be brought from Awash Arba (within Afar region, see annexed map) to fill up the birkeds and the villagers had access to water in their localities. However, due to the recent conflict with Afar, they no longer have access to water from Awash Arba.

About 17 kilometres from Unduftu town, in a place called Seele (see annexed map), approximately 1000 Issa households are residing. These people traditionally used to live along the Awash River for many years. Three months ago, however, they had to leave, pushed by the Afar following a shortage of water and pasture in the surrounding area. The Issa retreated and temporarily settled in Unduftu area. Most of them have lost their animals around Awash River during the conflict three months ago. Now there is no water and pasture where they are staying and many cattle died. According to a pastoralist resident, about 100 cattle died in this locality. Children are now begging for water from truck drivers and other trespassers on the main road that crosses from Awash to Mille in Afar region (see photo on page 3).

2.2 Uncontrolled increase in livestock and population settlements leads to social conflict

Water sources in the visited areas include wells, rivers and birkeds. Usually wells are controlled and managed by clan elders and birkeds are owned by individuals who control the use of water. Clans often control grazing land but clan territories are not clearly demarcated. Therefore whenever the Issas are in short supply of water and grazing land, they penetrate into Afar territory and vice versa. The main reason for pressure on water and grazing land and conflict between the two ethnic groups is the important increase in the livestock population over past years. According to elders and other key informants, the number of livestock has been increasing over the years partly because of increasing water sources. The development of more water points has also attracted population settlements around those places. This has lead to shortage of grazing land. Some scholars, however, argue that the uncertain climatic conditions in arid areas have a controlling effect on the size of the livestock population (Sugule, 1998).

The most recent clashes between Afar and Issa people along the main Awash-Mille road is the result of cumulative clashes over scarce resources. Many Issas who are living in Gedamaytu stressed that the Afar have built buildings in those areas where the Issa graze and water their cattle (Piguet, 2002). Consequently, the Issa are pushed away to the other side of the road and they are forced to graze their cattle in less productive areas.3

An example of existing tension between Afar and Issa people is illustrated in Unduftu where a road construction company based in the locality decided to dig water wells to benefit local residents. Unfortunately, the company has been threatened by the Afar and the activity was stopped. The water pump is now not functional for lack of maintenance (see photo page 4).

2.3 Repercussion on livestock and pastoral livelihood

Cattle and shoat milk production has sharply declined. Interviewed pastoralists have said that no milk is available. Cattle are emaciated, no grazing land is available and hence livestock is in poor health condition. An important impact of the current drought on camels can also be seen by looking at the interval time between drinking. Accordingly, the interval time has significantly declined from 15-20 days some years ago to 2-3 days nowadays. This is because the fodder is dry due to the current shortage of rain and does not have any water in it.

The decline in milk availability and poor health of cattle has direct implications on pastoral livelihoods. Though it has been difficult to quantify the number of dead cattle in the area4, the mission has observed substantial number of dead animals particularly in Afdem and Mieso woredas of Gedamaytu and Unduftu. This definitely erodes the coping mechanisms of pastoralists and their livelihood.

Unless immediate action is taken to solve the water and grazing problem, people will be forced to buy highly priced water, if they can at all as many people have depleted their assets and do not have any cash left. Particularly those with only a few cattle are the most vulnerable. Interviewed elders have stressed that people who are settled in villages are more vulnerable than nomads as it is difficult for them to move in search of alternative water points.

Two examples of individual households illustrates the dreadful situation that persists:

(1) An elderly mother with 8 family members had about 80 cattle when she was living along the Awash river for many years. Three months ago, however, she had to leave the Awash area due to conflicts with the Afar and she came back to Seele, Unduftu. The Afar people took more than 70 of her animals and of those that were left some already died due to lack of water a few days ago. Now she is left with only 3 cattle. Her children beg for water on main road. Though her relatives are assisting her by providing food and milk, she is not expecting any more assistance from them now as the current drought is affecting the whole community.

(2) A man with 13 children had more than 60 cattle. As he did not have his own birkeds, he used to water his cattle from a private birked owner who used to bring water from Awash Arba. The birkeds are now all dry and more than 10 of his cattle died. He is expecting that more of his animals will die as their physical condition has critically deteriorated. Even if he now wants to sell part of his cattle, he won't be able to sell them due to their physical condition and because nobody possesses enough cash anymore. Terms of trade for livestock and cereals have deteriorated.

3 Conclusion and Recommendations

Currently Shinille zone is suffering due to clan conflict with Afar over scarce resources and delayed gu rains. While Ayisha woreda is facing serious water shortages, the situation in Afdem and Mieso woredas is more complex due to the conflict with the Afar. Following clashes, many Somali pastoralists were forced to leave their traditional water and grazing areas. Quite substantial numbers of cattle have started dying particularly in Afdem and Mieso bordering Afar region. Though no critical human health problem could be observed or has been reported, human health conditions will become critical too as pastoralist livelihoods depend on livestock. Milk and other livestock products are severely reduced or not available any more due to poor health and physical condition of the livestock.

Without secure access to water, the very survival of the pastoral community's livestock is threatened. Water and pasture remain precarious in most of the visited places. Therefore, immediate water tankering and fodder provision is an essential short-term solution to the affected areas. Additional water points such as birkeds and wells are also important interventions. NGOs that operate in Shinille zone might consider maintaining the available water pump in Unduftu, Afdem woreda. Technical support to Afar and Somali Regional Water Bureaus might be a useful intervention to be considered.

Generally, local and international humanitarian agencies, NGOs, donors and the government should look into non-food item interventions particularly for livestock in the affected areas. But as the crisis has been going on for a while and livestock condition has further deteriorated due to non-intervention, concerning livestock, it might very well be too late to prevent the worst: the condition of most livestock has deteriorated to the point that they cannot be saved by whatever means and measures that are applied now. And should the rains come, then the animals that survived the drought will doubtlessly die from moisture stress and cold.

Immediate political solutions are essential to negotiate conflict resolution between Afar and Issa communities over water and grazing land. Peace talks between elders of the two clans should be facilitated by the two regional governments of Afar and Somali region to decide on how to commonly use the resources or if necessary to demarcate borderlines. Nevertheless, much effort will have to be put into this issue and the solutions will not be reached in the short term.


1 A number of NGOs are operational in Shinille zone including Hararghe Catholic Secretariat (HCS), Save the Children UK (SC-UK), Lutheran World Federation (LWF), Oxford Committee for Famine Relief (Oxfam GB), Handicap International (will start soon). HCS is probably one of the most active agencies in the zone. Its interventions include veterinary service, human health, water scheme development and food security and early warning monitoring. Even though these interventions are to be phasing out recently, due to the current drought problem, they plan to continue. There is also a plan to extend the programme to East and West Hararghe and Afar region. Cross border livestock treatment and trade is to be initiated to encourage cross border livestock trade.

2 The dead cattle, unlike the Afar case, cannot be observed unless one goes off the main Gewane-Mille road. Approximately 150 dead cattle were observed in a field near Unduftu.

3 Adeytu is one of the contested locations where the Issa and Afar are fighting over resources. Fighting took place recently (19/06/2002). Large numbers of people and animals from both sides are gathering in Adeytu now and this might lead to further conflict.

4 The figures indicated are rough estimations.



DPPC Disaster Prevention and Preparedness Commission (Federal Government level)
DPPB Disaster Prevention and Preparedness Bureau (Regional level)
DPPD Disaster Prevention and Preparedness Department (Zonal level)
FAO Food and Agricultural Organisation
GFDRE Government of the Federal Democratic Republic of Ethiopia
HCS Harar Catholic Secretariat
NGO Non-Governmental-Organisation
OXFAM Oxford Committee for Famine Relief
SC-US Save the Children Fund United States
SC-UK Save the Children Fund United Kingdom
UNCT United Nations Country Team
UN-EUE United Nations Emergencies Unit for Ethiopia
UNHCR United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees
WFP World Food Programme

Literature list of referred papers

Abdi (2001) A brief note on the pastoral family in the Shinele zone of the Somali region, WFP unpublished report, Dire Dawa

Piguet F (2002) Afar: insecurity and delayed rains threaten livestock and people. UN-EUE article June, Addis Ababa

Sugul J (1998) Changing Pastoralism in the Ethiopian Somali National Regional State (Region 5), South East Rangelands Project (SERP), UN-EUE study, Addis Ababa


The designations employed and the presentation of material in this document do not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever of the UN concerning the legal status of any country, territory, city or area of its authorities, or concerning the delimitation of its frontiers or boundaries.

25 July 2002

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