Drought-Induced Loss of Livestock in Horn of Africa Will Impact Communities “For Years to Come”
More than seven million animals dead in Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia
Millions of people across the eastern Horn of Africa currently face the threat of starvation amid an unprecedented, multiseason drought and compounding global shocks. As the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET) and other food security organizations urge the international community to ramp up relief efforts, experts warn that the impacts of extreme livestock losses as a result of the drought will be felt for years to come.
“The food security crisis in the Horn is already dire, and the window to prevent even further catastrophic outcomes ahead of a potential fifth-consecutive failed rainy season later this year is closing quickly,” FEWS NET team leader Kiersten Johnson said. “The impacts of drought on pastoralists in the region have been severe. Recovering from the loss of more than seven million livestock — animals that provide essential nutrition and incomes to people in this region — will not only be incredibly difficult, but will require long-term support on an international scale.”
Pastoralists, by definition, are people who receive most of their income from the production of animal products, including meat, milk, blood and hides. In the eastern Horn of Africa — as in much of the world’s drylands — pastoralists migrate with their animals in search of pasture and water sources for their herds. Pastoralism is uniquely suited to operate effectively in places with low rainfall totals and highly variable seasonal rainfall conditions. Pastoralists are able to manage such geospatial and temporal extremes by accessing and integrating a variety of landscapes and species into their production systems.
“Herders typically move livestock to drier areas during the rainy season and to wetter areas during the dry season,” American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) fellow and USAID livestock advisor Shaina Craige explained. “This seasonal migration pattern allows pastoralists to exploit the resources of different ecoregions in response to a dry and increasingly variable environment.”
Despite these practices, pastoralists are becoming extremely vulnerable to climate change and extreme weather events. The rise in temperature and recurrent droughts in the eastern Horn of Africa have led to abnormal migratory patterns and contributed to the destabilization of pastoral systems. Other factors that worsen pastoralists’ vulnerability include conflict, land use change, sedentarization and pressures associated with human population growth.
In Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia, where a majority of meat and milk products are produced by pastoralists, these vulnerabilities are devastating.
“When severe drought results in massive livestock deaths, it disrupts the flow of income and food sources for these pastoralists, and it also directly affects consumers who are already having trouble meeting their nutritional needs,” Craige said.
Recovering from drought-induced detriments to pastoral systems and rebuilding livestock herds to levels that can sustain households can take years. In late 2021, FEWS NET and other agencies reported that herd sizes in the eastern Horn of Africa were still below average, having not fully recovered from large-scale deaths that occurred during a severe 2016/2017 drought.
The latest Joint Statement on the region noted that, while livestock deaths and the impacts of destabilized pastoral systems are already severe, pastoral and agro-pastoral communities will be increasingly affected due to the failed March-April-May (MAM) 2022 rainy season, and a potential fifth-consecutive season of drought later this year.
“Livestock, particularly cattle and sheep, are dying on a massive scale in the eastern Horn of Africa,” Johnson said. “Pastoralists have yet to recover from a drought that happened years ago, and FEWS NET projects that further deterioration to food security and livelihoods as a result of even more livestock deaths and continued blows to pastoral systems will occur into 2023 and beyond.”
At least 17.8 million people in the eastern Horn of Africa are currently facing acute food insecurity, with Widespread Crisis (Integrated Phase Classification (IPC) Phase 3) and Emergency (IPC Phase 4) outcomes being observed across the region. In southern and central Somalia, over 213,000 people are experiencing Catastrophe (IPC Phase 5) conditions, marked by Extremely Critical levels of acute malnutrition and increasing levels of hunger-related mortality.
As severe pasture and water shortages further deteriorate livestock body conditions and drive more livestock deaths due to starvation and drought-induced diseases, experts warn that food insecurity, malnutrition and hunger-related mortality are likely to increase.
“We are witnessing high rates of livestock deaths, distressed sales and low animal birth rates in the Horn, which will have widespread impacts in two separate phases,” Craige and Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance (BHA) livestock advisor Christine Jost explained. “Immediately during the drought, these factors cause milk production to decline precipitously, leading to malnutrition and mortality, particularly in children and pregnant and lactating women. In the medium- to long-term, these extreme losses of livestock will lead to lost livelihoods and increasing vulnerability for communities that rely on pastoralism as a source of income.”
In Ethiopia, pastoralist production is responsible for 80% of the nation’s annual milk supply. FEWS NET estimates that livestock deaths in southern and southeastern Ethiopia have reached 3.5 million since late 2021. Pasture conditions in the region range from poor to the driest on record, leaving pastoralists with little to no migration options.
In Kenya, pastoralism accounts for 30% of the nation’s gross domestic product (GDP). In the country’s arid and semi-arid land (ASAL) areas, a total of 2.43 million livestock have died since October 2021, representing an overall mortality rate of 3.55%, according to the National Drought Management Authority (NDMA). Livestock milk production is currently around 60% below average in pastoral areas, and pasture and water availability, which are already poor, are expected to deteriorate further.
In Somalia, livestock production is the primary economic activity, contributing to nearly 50% of the country’s GDP and more than 60% of its export revenue. The latest estimates from the Food Security and Nutrition Analysis Unit (FSNAU) indicate that 3 million livestock died in Somalia between July 2021 and April 2022. FEWS NET expects livestock deaths to accelerate and peak during the July-September 2022 dry season.
Experts warn that livestock mortality rates across the eastern Horn of Africa are likely much higher than what is currently being reported.
Livestock experts: Humanitarian responses to loss of livestock must include proactive measures
The process of rebuilding livestock herds and recovering pastures that have been impacted by the ongoing, multiseason drought will take years. To address the immediate impacts on pastoral livelihoods and worsening levels of food insecurity, FEWS NET has called on the global community to ramp up humanitarian assistance in the form of food aid to pastoral and agro-pastoral communities in Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia.
While livestock interventions alone are rarely enough to revive pastoral systems impacted by drought, guidelines and standards for livestock interventions available in the widely used Livestock Emergency Guidelines and Standards (LEGS) handbook can provide relief if adopted swiftly.
Destocking is one example of a cost-effective drought intervention that can help take pressure off of pastoralists at the onset of an emergency. This practice involves removing affected animals before they become emaciated, lose their value or die.
“Destocking is a common response to drought when animals would otherwise deteriorate and die. It allows potential livestock losses to be converted into cash or meat,” the handbook states. “Removing animals relieves pressure on scarce feed, grazing and water supplies to the benefit of the remaining stock. Meat from slaughtered animals can supplement the diets of vulnerable families.”
Although destocking can serve as a productive coping strategy in certain situations, the window to utilize the method in the eastern Horn of Africa is closing. According to livestock experts, proactive intervention strategies are more likely to provide long-term benefits to communities already suffering as a result of widespread livestock losses.
“Future responses need to be proactive and anticipatory,” USAID livestock advisor Joseph Tritschler said. “Data demonstrate that early responses 1) obtain good commercial market prices, 2) maintain milk production for nutrition, 3) enable optimal use of supplemental feed to targeted breeding stock and lower grazing pressure, thus improving pasture recovery after drought. Resilience and recovery are linked to these proactive efforts.”
As previous droughts have shown, even if upcoming rainy seasons perform well, full recovery of herds, soil moisture, and pastures will take years. This rings particularly true for the ongoing, multiseason drought in the eastern Horn of Africa, where communities have not had the opportunity to recover from the previous drought of 2016/2017. The international community must provide adequate assistance to the eastern Horn of Africa in the coming years to protect pastoral and agro-pastoral communities from further harm.
For more information on food insecurity in Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia, access FEWS NET’s Horn of Africa page. Follow @FEWSNET on Twitter and Facebook for the latest news, and subscribe to receive alerts when new reports are published.