A Field Mission Report: Borena Zone of Oromiya

Walter Eggenberger, Field Officer, UNDP-EUE
Relief Assistance Alleviates Crisis But More Help Needed


For general background information on the drought situation in Borena, please refer to the earlier reports issued by the UN Emergencies Unit for Ethiopia in October and November 1999 (see references)

1. 18 months of drought and near drought conditions have inflicted a heavy toll on the pastoralist society of Borena Zone, Oromiya Region.

2. Drinking water for humans and livestock is extremely scarce. There is no remaining surface water and levels in the traditional deep water cisterns (Ellas) are precariously low. Water rationing and tankering is in place for 30 kebeles in the low-land weredas. In many places poor quality drinking water is creating a health hazard; diarrhoea and other intestinal disorders are on the rise;

3. Livestock (in Borana society, mainly cattle) suffer from scarce water resources and lack of pasture. Cattle have started to perish and there is little doubt that more livestock will be lost before the next rainy season sets in. The most negative effect of the poor condition of the cattle herds is the lack of milk for human consumption;

4. Malnutrition among children (especially up to 5 years) appears to be increasing as there is a scarcity of milk. Malnutrition usually goes together with heavy infestation of parasites/worms. Bloody diarrhoea, malaria and gastritis are common among the adult population. Wherever school feeding programmes are still operating, the health condition of the school children is visibly better;

5. Emergency relief of maize and wheat is now arriving in Borena Zone for 411,000 drought-affected people. Targeting beneficiaries remains a problem since relief rations are traditionally shared in the community. Targeting supplementary food deliveries for malnourished people is an even bigger problem since supervision and surveillance by trained health personnel is needed. Without supervision the effect of feeding programmes is very limited. There are very few knowledgeable personnel in the zone;

6. All the larger development organisations have shifted their focus to relief and rehabilitation; co-ordination between relief organisations and government is in place;

7. The evolving relief situation in Borena Zone has to be closely monitored: Should the next rainy season fail (damma, expected March to May) the need for a major relief operation may be unavoidable. Should the damma rains arrive, no time should be lost in commencing rehabilitation efforts and in seeking to improve drought preparedness in the zone. Current data indicate that the climatic cycle for droughts in the Borena Zone has shrunk from 5 to 3 years.


Borena Zone in southern Oromiya is an important pastoralist area of Ethiopia known to be very vulnerable to drought. Historically, dry spells have been common in this border area and longer periods of drought occur on the average once in a decade. While people have learned to cope with the normal cycle of dry periods, drought conditions that last for two and more years have at times inflicted heavy losses on humans and livestock. The most recent serious drought in Borena was in 1996.

1999/2000 is shaping up to be a particularly intense period of drought, with which the Borana cannot cope without outside help. The lowlands of Borena have not seen any sizeable rains since the failure of the small "hagaya" rains in October/November 1998.

A report by a UNDP-EUE mission in September 1999 warned:

  • "there is concern that a major crisis could emerge if the hagaya rains (October/November) fail or are below normal".

After the hagaya rains indeed turned out to be vastly insufficient a second UNDP-EUE mission reported at end of October on a very difficult situation facing people and livestock in Borena and remarked that there was little emergency assistance forthcoming:

  • "there is no reason for complacency and very little time left to launch an emergency operation to help avoid suffering and prevent widespread livestock death in the rangelands of Borena".

To obtain a first hand picture of the current situation and status of relief efforts in the zone three months after the hagaya rains failed, UNDP-EUE sent a new mission to the area which concentrated on five of the lowland pastoralists weredas of Borena: Liben, Arero, Dire, Yabelo and Teltele (see annexed map), the food situation in the small wereda of Moyale and the weredas in the northern and higher areas being much better and considered as under control.2

Some Facts and figures on the Borena/lowland weredas

Inhabitants: 1.4 Million total
Approx. 300,000 in the lowland weredas

Beneficiaries: 1999 June: 268,000
2000: 411,000 (figures: DPPC

Livestock: approx. 1.5 to 2.2 Million cattle;
(Goats and camels less common; no figures available)

DPPC / DPPB: HQ in Negelle, sub-office in Yabello, where activities for the western part of the zone are concentrated

NGOs and Development Agencies

CARE international: is phasing out of development projects in Borena, took up emergency projects when drought situation became severe. Works out of Yabelo; active mainly in Yabelo, Dire, and Teltele;

GTZ (German Development Agency): Shifted focus of activities in the last three months to emergency relief projects. Main office in Negelle; active in Liben, Arero and Dire;

Mekane Yesus (for relief projects funded mainly by Norwegian Church Aid; NCA) Main office in Agere Maryam;

Save the Children Federation USA: Human health and food security projects in Liban and Arero wereda. Main office in Negelle

SOS Sahel: Started activities in September 1999 with a focus on forestry and forest projects. Due to the drought have switched to relief efforts but are still waiting for funding of their proposed relief projects by "Band Aid" / EU / DFID-UK;

COOPI and CISP: Italian NGOs working mainly in the field of water supplies in Liban and especially in the Teltele area.

Drinking Water for Humans and Livestock

In all recent reports on the situation in the lowlands of Borena drinking water appears as the main concern. The last three months have brought both negative and positive developments.

On one hand, drinking water has become more scarce. Surface water sources are completely depleted, all the ponds are dry and more and more hand-dug wells are running dry also. Several hand pumps have ceased to be operational since the water level cannot be reached anymore or because the pumps were damaged, drawing sand in the shallow waters.

The traditional ellas (deep hand-dug or natural cisterns) have reached a water level of approximately 25 meters below the surface. In the traditional way of hauling water from this depth it takes up to six men or women forming a moving chain to bring the water to the level where it can be poured into jars for human consumption or into troughs for the animals. Water this deep has been encountered before, but hardly ever this early in the dry season. The pastoralists traditionally responsible for water management are afraid that some of the ellas will become salty and unusable.

In the area of Weeb (Arero Wereda) the cattle herds are now allowed to the wells only every four days, as compared to the normal rhythm of two days. In other locations the intervals for watering the animals is probably comparable to this.

As of mid-February the ellas still carried enough water for humans. However, there are some questions as to the quality of the water. More and more people complain about stomach cramps and diarrhoea. There is possibly a link to contamination of water resources.

On the positive side it can be noted that the water management authorities now dispose of 12 trucks for tankering water to the kebeles in need (4 each by CARE international, Mekane Yesus and DPPB). A system of co-ordination seems to be in place and kebeles in need of drinking water can count on at least one delivery every 7 to 14 days.

Some newly drilled deep boreholes (especially in the Teltele area by CISP) are now functional. They should be able to supply the local community with drinking water. But they could also be used in some places for the tankering of water to even more outlying kebeles. Using the boreholes could reduce travel distances and thus time for delivery considerably. CISP is currently in the process of handing over these boreholes to the local communities. Much will depend upon whether the daily management of these resources, including arrangements for their sustained operation and regular maintenance, can be instituted in a satisfactory manner.

However: the rough road conditions take a toll on the tankers. Out of the 12 trucks in the current tankering fleet, there are usually only 9 operational at any given moment. Maintenance and repair are very problematic due to the lack of spare parts. CARE International has requested mechanics and spare parts and hopes the funding for this can be arranged. Another problem is the time consuming charging and discharging procedures. In the kebeles there are hardly any containers larger than 20 litres. It can thus take more than half a day to discharge a 5,000 - 13,000 litre tanker truck. Bladders and other containers are urgently needed and could augment the capacities of the tanker fleet considerably.

The town of Yabelo is in an especially difficult situation as there is hardly any clean drinking water available. People line up for hours to receive their ration from the tankers or are attempting to draw the last water from hand-dug holes in the dry ponds. Tankering for such a large town is very difficult and would require a much expanded operational capacity.

Malnutrition and other health problems

The visitor to Borena Zone is struck by the many children with typical symptoms of malnutrition. According to local health workers/assistants this situation, especially for children below five years of age, has become increasingly worse. According to a health assistant at the local dispensary, "in the kebele of Marmora [50 km south of Teltele] more than 50 % of the infants show the symptoms of malnutrition - much more than in normal years. And all of these children have parasites/worms."

Malnutrition in children is at the same time a chronic problem in Borena. A study by SCF-US in 1997 showed an alarmingly high malnutrition rate for children in the pastoral community. SCF-US has since carried out a supplementary feeding programme in Liban zone for 6,000 beneficiaries and was able to improve the health condition considerably. Feeding programmes for people/children who are already malnourished, however, are difficult and costly. Efforts have to be increased to act early and not let the nutritional standard of the population sink to the point where malnutrition becomes a threat to life.

Visibly better is the health of schoolchildren who participate in school feeding programmes. Many communities try to carry on with these programmes even under adverse conditions. Some (i.e. Wachille, Arero wereda) had to abandon school feeding for lack of clean water. Needless to say, school attendance is related directly to the availability of school feeding. School feeding has in many places become an institution for which an infrastructure is in place and which is routinely administered. If it would be possible to extend these feeding programmes to pre-school children, fighting malnutrition would receive a much needed boost. While children can be easily observed playing around the houses, health condition of adults is more difficult to evaluate as they tend to stay inside their houses when sick.

Targeting in all supplementary feeding programmes remains a problem. The head of the DPPB in Yabelo is retaining a sizeable amount of supplementary food (Faffa/CSB) until his request for medical and organisational support is answered. To carry out a successful anti-malnutrition programme the beneficiaries have to receive the required amount of food for a longer period of time. Because the supplementary food deliveries are almost always distributed among a much broader part of the population the nutritional effect is almost nil. In a village some kilometers south of Agere Maryam the team observed a distribution of about 10 to 15 MT of Corn Soya Blend to the general public.

External responses to the drought

The UNDP-EUE in its September report on Borena regretted the tardiness of the relief efforts:

"The administration of the relief food appears to have shortcomings particularly in the slow pace at which it is being distributed to needy people in the zone. Current emergency relief operations appear to lack promptness and are considered not to be commensurate with the severity of the drought."

This picture has changed considerably.

During 1999, the DPPB in the zone was for a long time under-supplied with food aid. The amount of emergency food received from the central warehouses never covered the rising numbers of beneficiaries. Allocated deliveries arrived hesitatingly and in irregular intervals. As of February finally both DPPB offices in Negelle and Yabello reported that the allocated monthly amount of grain had arrived. There were positive indications that allocated amounts for future months would also arrive in time.

Two problems persist:

The Borana people are familiar with maize and are often skeptical when accepting wheat as part of their main diet. Since the deliveries of emergency food is presently borrowed from Emergency Food Security Reserve it arrives always in the form of wheat which in part is then sold by the beneficiaries in order to buy other needed commodities. Although this practice should be considered normal, as long as the target of a balanced diet is not put in question by it, delivery of maize to beneficiaries among the Borana would be preferable.

The delivery of food aid to the zone is the responsibility of the federal DPPC; the supplies are delivered to the local DPPBs. The DPPBs are, in turn, responsible for the local transport of the food to the final distribution points. In Borena the concept of "local" still encompasses large distances. DPPBs usually do not have enough smaller trucks at their disposal. According to the zonal administration, the situation has improved, but there remains a radius of at least 20 kms that the beneficiaries themselves have to cover in order to pick up their rations. In many cases the effort required for the beneficiaries to get their rations is too great and diminishes the intended effect.

Most of the international organisations active in Borena Zone have shifted their focus to support relief operations or initiate relief operations themselves:

  • GTZ is in the process of bringing in 1,000 MT of maize/wheat , 400 MT of beans, 100 MT of oil and with this expects to feed 40,000 people for 3 months;
  • CARE International has been receiving deliveries of grain since February 6. By the end of April CARE expects to have received 2,723 MT and 88 MT of Faffa. A proposal of a further 4,000 MT of Maize, plus Vegetable Oil and CSB has been made to USAID, but has not yet been confirmed;
  • Mekane Yesus (in co-operation with NCA) is expecting 540 MT of relief food;
  • SCF-US has confirmation of 486 MT of wheat, 40 MT of CSB and 18 MT of Oil for beneficiaries in Arero and Liban weredas for the months April to July;
  • SOS-Sahel has a proposal (with "Band Aid") for logistical support for DPPBs (water rationing and food aid deliveries) and (with DFID) for 3,000 MT of grain. Both requests had not been finalised as of end of February;
  • COOPI is expecting 833 MT of maize and 60 MT supplementary food for Liban Wereda.

While the co-ordination between relief organisations and government for Liban, Arero and parts of Dire weredas is in place, the co-ordination for the western and southern weredas is not as strong.

In general, the needs for the officially recognised approximately 400,000 beneficiaries are more or less covered until the end of April. However, the people of the pastoral areas will not be able to obtain milk from their herds until well after the ganna rains (hopefully) arrive later in March. And for the agro-pastoralists it is unrealistic to expect a harvest before September. It should also be noted that the much needed food support for 400,000 people in Borena has not yet been secured beyond April 2000.

Targeting emergency relief in Borena

Getting food to the recognised neediest beneficiaries in Borena is more difficult than in many other parts of the country. According to information obtained by the mission it is a cultural imperative among the Borana people to share everything that is received. Nobody is exempt from this "law" - not even needy people in times of crisis. The positive side of this responsibility for sharing is the fact that assets of the people who are better off will also be shared in times of crisis. There exists therefore a certain social safety net, albeit on a very low level.

It is, therefore, almost pointless to consider registering beneficiaries with greater effort and meticulousness. However, In the eyes of the people receiving food they are not getting the targeted amount of 12.5 kg per month and will always expect more. In many places the monthly ration for one family had to be divided up among 4 families. If a system could be found to determine the need of a kebele or "larger group of people" in a lump sum, much effort could be saved.

CARE dry-meat project

CARE International introduced a new project in October 1999 which is innovative and could be of considerable benefit to pastoralists in future drought crises in the area.3 So far CARE is operating with this project only in the two kebeles of Adegeltschid (40 km south-west of Yabelo) and Dubuluk (Dire Wereda, on the Yabelo-Moyale road) .

CARE buys cows/cattle in exchange for 50 or 100 kg of maize. The price is determined by an expert, who is also supervising the hygienic aspects of the operation. The animals are slaughtered in a small abattoir, purpose-built at each project site. The meat of the slaughtered animal is cut up into strips and air-dried within a screened shelter. These strips of dry meat are known in parts of Africa as Biltong. CARE is adding the dried meat produced in this manner in portions of 1 kg/person to the food rations of the beneficiaries. As supplement to the staple food, Biltong can be eaten as it is or it can be boiled and consumed as a soup.

So far six cows/steers are butchered per day in each of the locations; CARE is planning to increase this number to 10 per day. The project is funded by CARE USA until end of April 2000. By that time more than 100 MT of maize will have been "paid" to the two kebeles, a considerable amount.

Benefits are on all sides: The pastoralists receive grain at a time when it is almost impossible to sell their animals (see next heading), the cattle herds are reduced, and unproductive animals are eliminated. The beneficiaries on the other hand receive an additional food element which is rich in fat, protein and minerals.

Investments are reasonable. The abattoirs consist basically of a cement slab over which a wire-mesh screened structure is built to protect the fresh meat from insects. Once cut into strips, the meat is air dried in an open structure of mesh and corrugated iron. The women who cut up the meat have to be trained and the supervisor/meat expert has to be mobile. Experience shows that the pastoralists were sceptical of the scheme at first. With the increasingly devastating effects of the drought, however, more and more herdsmen were ready to sell some of their livestock. In February CARE received about 70 to 100 offers when it called for 40 animals. Dry-meat projects such as this could be used to further augment preparedness measures in pastoral areas such as Borena, starting operations when needed and closing when people are more interested in expanding their herds. The CARE dry-meat project is well worth being studied by other organisations.

Livestock situation

In the eyes of the Borana pastoralists the real threat of the current drought is to their animals and with this their traditional way of life. Cattle herding is dominant for Borana. There is no doubt cattle herds are and will be further decimated. There are few sheep in Borena Zone and camel and goats are resisting somewhat better the present drought conditions in the area. Reports and observations regarding the condition of cattle herds are not consistent, however. Some pastoralists claim to have already lost 20% of their herds, others place the losses not above the normal death rate for the yearly dry season.

The dilemma is that cattle herds in a large area of the central lowlands of Borena can still be watered at regular intervals of 4 days, but that there is practically no pasture left in the vicinity of the waterpoints being used. This means long distances for the herds between waterpoint and the few remaining pastures, distances that many cows/cattle have increasing difficulty to bridge. It also has to be pointed out that herds in Borena are in many instances too large and contain too many males for the remaining pastures to sustain for long and that over-age cows are usually the first to perish.

The biggest problem and danger arising from this precarious condition of livestock is the fact that there is practically no more milk for human consumption - one of the roots causes for the increased levels of malnutrition among children. Also important for the future livelihood of pastoralists is that under the current conditions cows will not get pregnant. This will prolong the rehabilitation process after the drought considerably. Exacerbating these problems is the fact that in Borena Foot and Mouth disease (FMD) is still widespread and that weakened herds are now especially vulnerable to any new epidemic.

The zonal authorities have plans to ferry-in fodder for animals. These plans are not yet very concrete. It is however accepted that to save all the animals with a fodder import scheme would impossible and much too costly. And to sort out the core herd which deserves to be saved takes time and would require a well formulated policy and a high degree of administration. Furthermore, the selected animals would have to be located where they could easily be reached by trucks.

Looking to the future

For the Borana the next rainy season (ganna) is expected for end February/middle of March and should last until May. If the ganna rains again turn out to be insufficient or if the season should fail altogether, only a massive relief operation (food and water) can help the pastoralists and agro-pastoralists in the lowland of Borena. At that point even fodder imports would not be sufficient to save even a core of the livestock herds.

Pastoral areas recuperate much slower from a crisis than sedentary agricultural societies. It takes time until the cows produce milk again and even more time for the restocking of herds. Presuming that the ganna rains will arrive in time (by mid-March at the latest) the task of rehabilitation should be immediately started. As the cycles of drought conditions become shorter - as was repeatedly pointed out - it is at the same time imperative to focus the efforts on drought preparedness as soon as possible.

Support for Agro-pastoralists:

The most promising prospects rest with the agro-pastoralists. Although they are hardest hit now and in need of support they will be able to bring in the first harvest possibly in August to cover their food needs. Many fields - especially in the Teltele area - have been ploughed and are ready for sowing. How much additional seed might be necessary has to be evaluated. GTZ, SOS Sahel and others have projects dealing with the provision of drought crops. Such crops are in use outside Ethiopia with good results. Borena is one of the best suited areas to introduce these varieties to Ethiopia.

Restocking livestock herds:

The Borana will undoubtedly begin restocking their cattle herds as soon as possible with the aim to reach at least the pre-drought size. Size and make-up of these herds is discussed heatedly even among experts. In supporting their efforts to restock the international community should aim to lift the quality of the herds (younger cows in calves rearing age; cows with higher yields of milk) and to dispose of the unproductive old animals. The aim should be to encourage herd improvement not just herd size. This will potentially open up new markets for the animals produced in the area.

Drought Preparedness:

In all of Borena the current absence of a viable livestock market is lamented. In effect, the pastoralists- even if they want to - have very few places to sell animals and buy the food grain they need. The fact that a private marketing company that bought the concession to market beef from Borena is apparently not exercising this right is further aggravating the situation.

On the other hand, it has to be pointed out that markets do not arise only in times of need to the vendors. Markets depend on a steady supply and availability of goods, merchandise and good quality animals. Only then will markets develop and be there at times when they are most urgently needed. Efforts to improve and develop marketing infrastructure, management and access are therefore essential not only for the future economic life of the zone but also in terms of disaster preparedness.

The dry-meat-production project of CARE provides one possibility for the international community to help pastoralists find a market for their surplus animals during time of stress and also provide nutritional support at the same time. Cattle herds need to be reduced when there is little pasture available and when pastoralists need access to food grain, the CARE scheme provides for both. The production of dried meat needs some preparation however: basic slaughter houses have to be build, drying racks constructed, and staff trained. This is not very expensive but has to be done in a preparatory phase in order to be ready when needed.

Water resources development has been and still is a priority in Borena Zone. The efforts by different organisations should continue and be given a high priority. Several of the pumps and wells have been damaged as a result of heavy use during the 1999/2000 period. The relevant local authorities need further support with maintenance and repair works.

The authorities and organisations managing water rationing have gathered valuable experience during the current drought. Their practical knowledge should be put to use in preparing contingency plans for a possible worsening of the current situation as well as for future droughts. The federal DPPC outlines in its appeal for 2000 the creation of an emergency water tankering fleet as part of the development of a strategic preparedness capacity at national level. The appeal calls for 20 truck-mounted water tankers with basic accessories. The idea of a permanent water tanker fleet is justified. Whether the tanks should be pre-mounted on the trucks or designed to be put on (flat-bed) trucks only when needed should be discussed. In the latter configuration the trucks could be used for other purposes - i.e. for the local movement of food relief. Whatever option is selected, the relatively small national tanker fleet will always have to be supplemented with rented trucks when a serious drought strikes. Standard contracts with potential suppliers to this effect could be made in advance.


1. Borena Zone: Outcome of Small Rains anxious