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It’s been years since the grasses of Deed Liben grew tall, ensuring a safe haven for wildlife and abundant nutrition for the herds of cattle and goats that families in the Guji zone of southern Ethiopia depend on for food and income. In a handful of places, preservation efforts have restored some of this renowned pastureland, but for many people, including Galgalo Boru, making a living by herding alone is no longer an option here.
Late one afternoon, as sheets of rain and sunshine washed the plain, he sat by the side of the road, a few cows behind him munching shoots of green the rain had coaxed from the ground. He was alone and contemplating the five hectares of wheat and haricot beans he had planted recently on the far side of the road. Some of it had sprouted—slivers of possibility pushing through the red earth—but so much depends on what comes next: sun that scorches or clouds that cool and bring rain?
Boru could only hope.
“I am a pastoralist,” he said. “But I lost many animals and now I am farming. Now, I don’t have animals except for a pair of oxen and a donkey.”
The rain came late to this region, and the dry days, seemingly endless, put severe stress on families and their animals. In the last month alone eight of Boru’s precious herd died, including six lactating cows and an ox. Weak and hungry from drought, most of them collapsed in the cold rain.
The pattern is hardly new—though climate change may be exacerbating it—and it’s one of the realities of this hardscrabble region that is pushing herding families to find new ways of making a living. Some are now turning to farming; some, like Boru, have long combined the cultivation of small plots with the care of livestock. With rain so unpredictable, however, there is an ongoing debate about the wisdom of encouraging agriculture here, and across the sweep of southern Ethiopia’s pasturelands.
But where there’s water, there’s life, and along the banks of the Dawa River—about an hour-and-half’s drive from Boru’s field—Oxfam America is now supporting a small-scale irrigation project for 201 households. Families who have long relied mostly on their animals are finding that the earth can be bountiful, too—as long as there is the promise of water.
For Boru, that promise is fleeting: Irrigation isn’t possible on his remote patch of land. But for ages what was possible in this unpredictable environment was herding, and it was reliable enough to become a way of life for generations.
“Before, we never had a problem with food,” said Boru, who is now 56. “We drank milk in both rainy seasons and dry seasons.” But gradually, the productivity of the animals began to decline, and herders had to start selling them so they could buy grain to feed their families.
“So, 26 years ago we decided this (grain) is something we can produce ourselves,” said Boru. And that’s when he began to farm—an inevitability that countered everything about a culture that reveres its cattle. Yoking them to a plow and using whips to drive the team brought anguish all around.
“The elders really shouted at us saying you’re hitting your animals,” recalled Boru. “You want to finish the animals? Now, they understand the importance of farming.”
But rain is needed as urgently as ever.
“Before we used to get rain starting in January—long ago,” Boru said. “Now (this year) we get rain at the beginning of May. We are not expecting harvests from these fields, but we are trying.”
Is there a solution?
“The solution can only from Waqa—the Creator. Only He can bring rain,” said Boru.
But with enough early warning, farmers and herders can better prepare for when that rain will—or will not—fall. A weather pattern known as La Niña has now brought drought to much of the Horn of Africa. Scientists have known about La Niña, and its likely effects, since last summer.
Boru did not.
If he had, perhaps he could have sold his cows before drought did them in, and used the income to buy new ones once the rain had replenished the pastureland. In this harsh environment, timely information is almost as precious as precipitation.