Herds and livelihoods at risk in Yemen

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A vaccination campaign for animals in rural Amran is helping to preserve the herds and the livelihoods of vulnerable families. The campaign is being run by the Ministry of Agriculture, with support from the ICRC, which is providing equipment and vaccines as well as paying for car rental, fuel and incentives for the vaccinators. ICRC staff accompany the teams regularly to the field.

It is hard to imagine how animals can survive in the parched landscape of Amran governorate. But survive they do, providing a living for thousands of impoverished rural families in a region that has long been affected by insecurity.

The fact that people, too, have existed for centuries in such an austere terrain of rock and stone, where narrow terraces bind the mountain slopes with ribbons of earth, is a miracle in itself. Here and there, village houses made from mud and stone cling to the tops of rocky pinnacles beneath a canopy of blue sky.

The occupants of the houses, who are some of Yemen’s poorest farmers, lead fragile lives at the best of times; and if their animals fall ill, or worse, die, then disastrous consequences likely await the farming families.

A gathering in the wild

We drove through this ancient land one recent morning to a rocky hollow where farmers had brought their sheep and goats to be vaccinated against goat plague, a highly contagious disease also known as "Peste des Petits Ruminants", or PPR. It is considered one of the most deadly diseases affecting sheep and goats in Yemen, with the first recorded case having occurred in Hadramout in June 2012. At the vaccination site, Dr Mohamed Al-Najiri, Chief Officer of the Livestock Department in Amran, confirmed how important animals are for the community. "People here lead simple lives and have limited resources," he said. "Poverty is very high. Animals are the basic source of income for everyone.

"But PPR is highly contagious," he continued, "and should an epidemic start, up to 90% of the sheep and goats might die."

By February 2013, according to the Livestock Department, as many as 400 animals in Amran governorate may already had died from PPR; so the Ministry of Agriculture decided to carry out a vaccination campaign, putting Dr Al-Najiri in charge.

The campaign would involve 48 vaccinators divided into 16 teams. The vaccinators, many of whom had been trained by the ICRC in 2012, would travel along Amran’s precipitous mountain tracks and bumpy roads by car or on foot for around 60 days, vaccinating up to one million animals.

The campaign was officially launched on 17 February 2013. By the time we caught up with them ten days later, the teams had vaccinated nearly 160,000 animals.

Everyone takes part

Although Yemen is a patriarchal society, women often work outside the home. Amongst other tasks, they take responsibility for the livestock, whilst their children shepherd the wandering flocks during the day.

At the vaccination site veiled girls and women in voluminous garments were everywhere, shooing the jostling animals together so that the vaccinators could conduct their work. In one hand the vaccinators carried a syringe, and in the other hand a can of red dye with which to spray each animal after it had been vaccinated.

Village sheikhs with weather-worn faces stood chatting on the sidelines, prayer beads strung over their “jambeeya”, the traditional dagger that is part of every man's dress code in the north of Yemen. It was baking hot by the time the vaccinators paused for breakfast at around 11.00am. As they crouched on the ground, eating from a common tray, an old woman sitting some distance away caught my eye. She was wearing a large straw hat, and was staring out into the blue morning, contemplating perhaps the grandeur of the mountains opposite, sitting very still.

"I live in Rais, it's not far," she said. “My goats are not sick and I don't know anything about this disease, but I was told that if I brought my animals to be vaccinated it would help them not to fall ill. That is why I came.

“We are seven in my family,” she explained. “We don’t own any land and don’t grow anything ourselves. We only have Allah. From time to time we sell a young goat, so that we can buy things we need.” And then she turned back again to stare into the void.

Their breakfast over, the vaccinators resumed their work, and we decided to move on. The animals that had been vaccinated were also leaving, picking their way across the boulder-strewn slope, snatching at anything edible they could find. The shepherd children followed, skipping nimbly from rock to rock, chivvying along the strays. Seeing them made me think how narrow the margin is between loss and survival in this unforgiving land, not only for livestock, but for people, too. And how the lives of both are bound together now, just as they have been for centuries.