Older pastoralists in the Horn of Africa are calling for urgent action to save them from a drought that is leaving them and their entire way of living passed down the generations, at breaking point.
Malicha Guyo Liban (66), a pastoralist and community leader from Dubluk, one of the worst affected areas in the Borena zone in Ethiopia explains:
“If we keep on getting droughts like this one, we won’t be able to continue as pastoralists. That’s because no-one is helping us or our cattle. I appeal to the government to provide help for us. This is an unbearable situation. I sometimes don’t want to believe that I have lost all my cattle.”
(c) Admasu Brook / HelpAge International
Older people told HelpAge International that they have experienced many droughts during their lifetimes but nothing like this current one. During previous droughts, they could kill their animals for food or to sell for money; they could migrate to find pasture and water, or they could seek help from family and neighbours. But this year, all this is nigh on impossible. Thousands have had their whole herds decimated, have searched for miles to unsuccessfully find water, and are on the brink of starvation with no one to help because they are all in the same dire situation. On top of that, many are too scared to leave their homes as people are being killed for venturing beyond their tribal lands in search of pasture.
When a HelpAge team visited Marsabit in northern Kenya last month, six people were reportedly killed after thousands of pastoralists in desperate need of pasture travelled to another area, which had received a small amount of rain.
“As a pastoralist, I was used to not having enough rain and it had a minimal impact on livestock in Borena. But I have never in my life experienced a drought like this one,” explained Jatani Guyo Jawe from Ego village in Dubluk.
“What has happened to all the Borena pastoralists is unspeakable. I have looked after my father’s cattle for my whole life. Nevertheless, I have never seen a drought like this.”
Older people are particularly at risk. Many have been left behind by their adult children who are leaving to escape the drought/seek economic opportunities as they don’t have the strength to migrate with their remaining cattle and are now in charge of feeding their grandchildren when they can barely feed themselves. They were completely dependent on their cattle for their food and livelihoods but now they have nothing.
In Borena in Ethiopia, 750,000 cows have died. Ten thousand families have lost their entire herds, including Malicha Guyo Liban (66), from Ego village, who had 130 cows.
Malicha explains: “All the pasturelands are bare. Ponds have dried up. Our cows have nothing to eat. I tried to keep them alive by buying hay with some money I saved up. However, it was beyond my capacity. Eventually, I took all my cows to a nearby district called Miyo about 50 miles from my village. I found the same situation there, so I immediately returned, and the cows started dying on the road home.”
HelpAge International has commissioned a survey to ascertain the scale of the crisis among older people in Marsabit in Kenya, Borena in Ethiopia and Kapoeta in South Sudan and to identify what needs to be done to address this crisis in the immediate and long-term future. All of them are pastoralist zones.
In Kenya, it is estimated that 1.4 million animals have died from the ongoing drought. In Marsabit in the north, over 270,000 people are facing starvation because of the drought, representing over 75% of the population.
Kapoeta, which is close to the border with Kenya, is one of the worst affected areas in South Sudan. Eighty people have died and about 3,500 families were displaced in Kapoeta East and Kapoeta North County because of drought and conflict. About 11,500 cows were lost to cattle raiders from last year up to May 2022 and 2,500 died because of drought.
Severe drought, lack of food and subsequent displacement have triggered conflict over scarce natural resources in all three countries.
“Death by starvation is not being reported”
The survey shows that 73% of older people in the three countries reported they do not have access to enough food. In Ethiopia, it was 92%.
More than half (56%) are currently only eating one meal per day. But many of the people interviewed are not even getting that.
Khoya Tambula (85) of Kutur village in Marsabit, Kenya, stated ominously:
“Old people are facing imminent death. We are dying one by one but death by starvation is not being reported.”
The wife and son of 71-year-old Dida Yaro Ruchi from Maikona village in the North Horr sub-county of Marsabit died of hunger-related complications earlier this year. His wife had cancer and was very weak. She needed to be transferred to Nairobi for treatment, but the family had no money for food, let alone transport, as all their cattle died. Dida’s son became anaemic and died of an undiagnosed illness.
They are not the only fatalities in the area.
“In this village, someone starved to death,” says Bokaya Okutu (75) from Kalacha in the Maikona sub-county of Marsabit in Kenya. “We have had to go without food for days and nights.”
Of those who do not have access to enough food, 84% responded this was because they do not have enough money. In Kenya it was 95%. Over half (56%) have had to borrow money to cover their basic needs since the start of the crisis.
Qabale Garbole Boru (62) of Ego village in Dubluk in the Borena region of Ethiopia explains: “I have no food at all… I used to buy food but now I have no money. …I barely eat once a day. I pray to God to get us out if this situation. I am scared that if this situation continues, many people will die in my village including me.”
Jatani Guyo Jawe, also of Ego village, adds:
“We can’t buy food because we don’t have any money, so we don’t eat. We might have a cup of tea in the morning and sometimes eat a little maize at night when it is available. In most cases we don’t eat.”
The situation is compounded by high food prices, in part due to the crisis in Ukraine. For example, the cost of a basic food basket – the minimum food needs per family per month, has risen by 66% in Ethiopia.
Aid is a “drop in the ocean”
Even though older people are starving, help is not forthcoming. Half of the older people (52%) said that the current rations they are being provided with are insufficient.
“The government relief is not reliable. And what’s more, it’s just a drop in the ocean,” says Sharama Korme Elema (77) Maikona in Kenya.
Even when there is government relief, many older people lose out.
“Although there are people who generally sympathise with old people like me, during food relief distributions, people scramble for it and that becomes a challenge for us as elderly people.” Says Dido Yaro Ruchi (71) also from Maikona.
The food distributed is also often inappropriate for older people.
“We get maize once every few months but that is hard for us to eat as we can only survive on soft food. People are starving to death,” adds Sharama Korme Elema.
Kenya has a national livestock policy that acknowledges and recognises the value of pastoralism. It also sets forth actions to mitigate the impacts of drought on pastoralists. However, HelpAge Kenya reports that Kenya has not fully implemented key actions including market linkages, subsidies for inputs, actions to mitigate effects of drought, such as building water pans and providing livestock feed adding that this lack of action has exacerbated livestock deaths.
Funding from international donors and NGOs is also inadequate. The UN estimates that humanitarian funding of US$4.4bn is required to provide life-saving assistance and protection in the region.
The World Food Programme recently cut its funding to South Sudan which will affect 1.7 million it had planned to assist. The WFP urgently needs $426m to cover needs in South Sudan for the next six months.
This is already having dramatic consequences. Naleng Noyapio (80) from Kapoeta North has lost most of her cattle to drought and conflict, and is currently surviving on one meal a day. She says:
“My daughter was getting food from WFP but she said there will be no more food from next month (July). I have nightmares and sleepless nights about the future.”
HelpAge has initiated an emergency response in Kenya, Ethiopia and South Sudan.
- HelpAge Kenya is providing cash to 1,700 older people in Turkana and Marsabit.
- In South Sudan, HelpAge is supporting the Humanitarian Development Consortium to provide food, cash, goats, seeds, jerry cans and malnutrition screening for 1600 older people in Kapoeta East and North.
- HelpAge Ethiopia is providing cash for 3,000 older people; providing water for people and animals, and drilling and rehabilitating wells in Borena zone.
Only half of older people surveyed have access to clean water
Half of older people reported they do not have access to safe drinking water. Often, the water points available are too far away.
Jatani Guyo Jawe is from Ego village in the Borena district of Dubluk in Ethiopia where 14 out of the 17 ponds have dried up. He explains: “There is no source of clean water in our village. I hear there is a motorised water scheme about two hours away from our village. I can’t go there. But my wife goes there to fetch water for us. It is not clean. Since we have no option, we drink it.”
Health care is also too far away for many older people to reach. 60% of older people reported they could not access medicine and 82% of people in South Sudan specifically. This is very concerning, given the high prevalence of older people with health conditions (72%). The top four reported health conditions were joint aches and pains (38%), respiratory problems (22%), cataracts (18%) and gastrointestinal issues (13%).
Most of the older pastoralists in North and East Kapoeta in South Sudan have to walk for two to three hours to get health care, which is impossible for many of them, especially those suffering from health conditions. When they get to the health centres, they don’t have many drugs and the health workers are inadequately-trained.
Older people around the world often have responsibility to look after their grandchildren for one or two days. But almost all older pastoralists surveyed are now looking after their grandchildren full-time, as their adult children have left their villages to try and find pasture for their animals.
88% of older people surveyed are providing care to children, which highlights the crucial role older people play within the family unit. This is 93% for Ethiopia and 97% in South Sudan.
Bokayo Okutu from Maikona sub-county in Marsabit explains: “My biggest worry now is that we don’t have food and my grandchildren, who fetch water and firewood for me, sometimes go on an empty stomach and that really disturbs me.”
Liban Duba from Anole village told HelpAge how he usually supports his four grandchildren but that he hadn’t eaten since the day before:
“I pay their school fees and buy the materials they need. I buy them food, and I support them any way I can. We buy them shoes, clothes and mattresses to sleep on. But I’m not able to at the moment. Now we have nothing. I’m going to have to pull them out of school.”
Aba Boru Berchi (68) from Dubluk adds:
“The feeling and fear of not being able to provide for my family hurts me every day. I can’t settle in my mind. I can’t sleep at night. I am now afraid that we may starve in the coming weeks or months.”
Older people used to get lots of support from their younger family members but for many, this is no longer a possibility.
Naminit Lojore Lochilia from Napete in Kapoeta in South Sudan said:
“If there is nothing my children can give me, I have to bear it because they are in the same situation. None of my grandchildren go to school; we don’t have enough money.”
The stress of losing their livelihoods, having no food, water and health care and not being able to look after their grandchildren is having an enormous strain on older pastoralists.
Of those surveyed, almost two thirds (63%) said they were worried, nervous and anxious on some days.
Dida Racha Guyo (65) from Maikona in Marsabit in Kenya told HelpAge:
“Someone in our village attempted suicide because he lost all his cattle like me. People rescued him.”
Liban Duba from Dubluk in Ethiopia added: “There are many people who have lost their mind because of this. People lost their cattle and got confused. We can’t sleep at night…We have nightmares…People are chaining people’s hands so they don’t hurt anyone. There are people in chains now.”
Many of the people interviewed, especially in South Sudan, have been affected by inter-communal or cross-border conflicts, mainly as a result of pastoralists having to travel longer distances in search of water and pasture.
Lopir Paulino from Kapoeta North was shot in the leg two years ago by cattle raiders and the bullet broke a bone. The leg became infected, and his family members decided to amputate it and treated the wound with local herbs. The wound has still not healed but he cannot get any medical treatment.
In Marsabit, cattle raiding has always been an issue, but fighting has recently increased largely as a result of the scarcity of pasture, but also because of the forthcoming election in August this year.
Koyo Abudo Tambula (85), an elder from Kutur village in Marsabit told HelpAge:
“One of my nephews was shot when he went to protect his animals that were being driven away. My eldest sons also faced conflict when they took their cattle to graze on the mountainside. So, they cannot go away to far lands in search of pasture anymore as they may not come back.”
The increased conflict is a sign of sheer desperation of the pastoralists who have nowhere else to go in search of water and pasture and their entire livelihoods and way of living is disappearing.
“This is a crisis that the world needs to listen to; more support is urgently needed. We cannot wait for a famine to be declared while people are literally starving to death right now. And older people, who are being left behind to die, must be prioritised,” says Carole Ogeng’o, HelpAge International’s Africa Director.
“Governments in the Horn of Africa must urgently address the needs of pastoralists. Increasing drought and climate change threatens to wipe out their very existence. Older pastoralists know what needs to be done to save this traditional and important way of life and they need to be listened to.”
HelpAge is calling on UN, national governments and development agencies
To urgently scale up funding to support older people affected by drought by providing appropriate food aid, clean water supplies, cash, mobile health care, psychological support and rehabilitation of existing water sources.
To urgently provide support to pastoralist communities who have lost their livestock so they can restock.
HelpAge is also calling on the Kenyan government to implement its national livestock policy, set up emergency response programmes to support pastoralist communities and to increase budget allocations to the livestock sector.
And on climate change:
HelpAge is calling on countries to live up to their commitments to finance adaptation to extreme weather events, including droughts.