Borena, Oromiya region - Last October, the elders in Borena zone of Oromiya region in southern Ethiopia predicted that the main rains would fail but some never took them seriously. The same happened in February.
“There were some who believed them and sold their livestock and bought goats and saved up some of their money," Uka Dida, chairman of the Dembi kebele (village), said. “I did not believe them and I lost all my livestock – it was an expensive lesson for me.”
Now, the elders are warning that the second rains will fail again in October. Their calculations are based on the phases of the moon and the position of the stars. This time local officials believe the forecast.
"We don't have good meteorological services here - the elders also do their calculations and what they tell us is not good news,” said Ephrem Ombosho, head of one of several Disaster Prevention and Preparedness Agency offices in Borena. He and his team are assessing local needs.
Like other pastoralists in the region, the Borana have a range of techniques to anticipate and even predict drought, some based on observing natural phenomena such as the growth of shoots on particular plants at certain times in the year. Their calendar system, which is based on observations of the moon and stars and is thought by researchers to date back to 300BC, incorporates a form of astrology and weather forecasting.
In search of pasture
According to the UN, the southern Borena zone, along with other parts of the Horn of Africa, is just one step away from famine, on a five-point scale.
"We are thinking of forming cooperatives to pool our money for a difficult time like this," Uka said. "We are also advising people to invest in goats, which are more drought-tolerant, and maybe give up on cattle now.”
Villagers such as Adan Dhono, who lost 25 animals, have set off on a two-week journey by foot, with his surviving seven cattle, for greener pastures more than 200km away.
Others try to find casual work across the border in Kenya, but the situation is not any better there. Officials say at least 20 percent of Borena’s population has migrated to other neighbouring zones. “But imagine the amount of overgrazing that is going to lead to,” an aid worker said.
There are two rainy seasons in Oromiya: the main season, October-November, and the small season, February-May. Both failed in Borena, destroying thousands of livestock and the lives of those who depend on them. The number of aid beneficiaries has risen by 41 percent in July since April 2011, says the government.
It is cooler now in Borena. Dark clouds hover, "but these clouds just pass us by every time this year - they are moving from Kenya towards the highlands, they are not for us", said Seifu Mekbib, an agricultural expert with the local administration in Moyale, the border town between Ethiopia and Kenya.
Without rain, there is a chance some livestock will not recover. Of the 1.29 million people in Borena, at least 412,000 are already receiving some kind of food assistance, including aid provided under the Productive Safety Net Programme (PSNP).
Only a month ago, the stench from the rotting carcasses of cattle, donkeys and even chickens pervaded southern Borena. "The heat and the smell were so tremendous – it was very difficult for us to move around," an aid worker told IRIN.
A villager at Dikicha, about 20km from Ethiopia’s southern border with Kenya, pointed to a long ditch, with the remains of livestock. IRIN visited four villages. All had similar stories - hundreds of livestock dead.
"We just don’t have the resources to compensate their loss – it will take at least two years for them to recover," said Amare Endale, a health official at the local Disaster Prevention and Preparedness Agency office. "Some NGOs like Care International and the Food and Agriculture Organization have provided money but that support is also limited by resources.”
Some livestock farmers, who had received compensation, said the amount was not adequate to replace the dead animal. “I got 800 birr [about US$47] for a cow, while the cost to replace it is 1,500 birr [about $88.50],” said Boru Iba, a member of a village association.
The government’s PSNP targets people facing predictable food insecurity and offers guaranteed employment for five days a month in return for food or cash, but it has run its course in Borena. The programme runs for six months every year and also assists the elderly and disabled.
In Moyale town, the last distribution of food under the PSNP has left some angry. Dhebo Giro, 60, resident of Shabare village, asked: “What are we going to do for the next three months and what if it does not rain in October?”
People were also incensed that they were only getting cereals. “We cannot afford salt, oil; I don’t even have water – I am a woman, I need water but I can only bathe once a month,” added Dhebo.
But Hussein Hassen, a field monitor with the UN World Food Programme (WFP), which provides the food for the programme, said resources were limited.
Because of the high food prices, he said, efforts were being made to ensure pastoralist communities got food rather than cash.
Admissions to the therapeutic feeding programmes in Oromiya increased by 37 percent between February and March, according to the government’s Revised Humanitarian Requirements Document.
Ombosho, the local disaster official, said relief food would be increased, but the numbers in need were rapidly rising.
In Demdi village, those numbers had doubled in the past three months, according to Barude Gideso, a food security expert at a Disaster Prevention and Preparedness Agency office. As a result, the amount of corn soya blend per beneficiary had been reduced from about 4kg to about 1kg.
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