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Multimedia Feature: Beyond Drought: Adding Life to the Numbers

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Drought caused at least 250,000 new displacements in 2019. We carried out original research in four countries to find out more.*

Red sand, a green plastic chair, tea with camel milk. A child approaches and looks at me with curiosity. Holding a yellow jerry can with a red cap, he lifts it up and starts to speak to me. "He’s asking you if you want camel milk", says Abdi, a local researcher who has been acting as our translator during this phase of our research in Ethiopia.

We are in the town of Warder, in the Somali region of Ethiopia. Curious, I ask the boy some questions. His name is Bashir (anonymised) and he is 10 years old. I take a sip of tea and look again at the jerry can. "How many litres of camel's milk can that hold?" I ask. "Three litres" Bashir answers. When I ask him where he's from, my translator's expression turns to mild bewilderment as he translates the boy's answer: "I walk about two hours to sell milk here".

A quick clarification later and it turns out that he actually walks two hours to Warder and two hours back home. Bashir makes this trip every day in order to help his father and his family, who lost many animals to drought and became displaced.

This is the very human face of drought displacement.

Drought is a symptom of climate change

The makeshift tents of those displaced in Ethiopia’s Somali region; the dry canals of Southern Iraq; the crowded urban settlements of Burco, Galkayo and Qardho in Somalia; and the increasingly fragmented farm parcels of the Maradi region of Niger: The four target countries of this research – Ethiopia, Iraq, Somalia, and Niger – present striking examples of how drought and water scarcity are forcing hundreds of thousands of people to abandon their homes and ways of life.

Video: In some areas of the Somali region of Ethiopia, pastoralists use this water to feed livestock if it is available and if they are able to reach it with their animals.

Understanding how drought affects the environment in these regions of the world is key to understanding how it affects communities. A large majority of the people we interviewed across all four countries feel the climate has changed in recent decades: there is less rain and the weather is much hotter.

Climatic shocks are seen to be increasing in frequency: "Some years ago, droughts happened once every ten years and now we have one every five years in some parts of this region," said a member of the Disaster Prevention and Preparedness Bureau in the Somali region of Ethiopia.

In Somalia, one of the most vulnerable countries in the world to climate change, temperatures are projected to increase by up to 4.3°C by the end of the century. "There have been big changes and the rainy seasons have been reduced. The situation has become more difficult," said a member of a local authority in south Galkayo, Somalia.

In the Somali region of Ethiopia, internally displaced people (IDPs) we interviewed agreed that the drought between 2015-2017 was the worst they can remember.

That drought is referred to locally as Afgudhiuye ("nothing to put in your mouth"). In Somalia, the same drought was called Sima, which translates as "equal", because it was so extreme that everyone was affected.

Video: An overview of the research we carried out into drought-related displacement in the Somali region of Ethiopia

Drought disrupts livelihoods

Audio: Ali talks about his experience of displacement in Ethiopia.

Environmental degradation and drought have severely disrupted rural livelihoods in Ethiopia, Iraq, Somalia, and Niger. Yet drought means much more than just displacement and the loss of a job for the thousands of affected pastoralists and farmers. In many cases drought means abandoning an ancestral way of life.

People become displaced when their livelihoods reach a critical threshold below which pastoralism or farming are unsustainable. "What is the tipping point? When you spend money preparing the land and planting but then the crop fails, or you have to sell your animals because you can’t maintain them. It is then that you are forced to leave," explained a displaced farmer in southern Iraq.

According to participants in our qualitative research, during the most recent drought, households lost up to 80% of their livestock in the Somali region of Ethiopia.

Video: Polluted water causes poisonings in Basra, Iraq

The loss of livelihoods is also a reality that we have observed in Iraq, where the situation has been similarly acute over the last decade – a period of low rainfall and drought that only ended temporarily in 2019. The long-standing consequence of these dynamics is a gradual abandonment of agriculture.

Riadh abandoned his land and livelihood after his date palms in Basra Governorate died because they had been irrigated with salty and polluted water – a cause of widespread poisonings in Basra.

Basim’s home in rural Thi-Qar Governorate, on the edge the Iraqi marshes, lies abandoned and empty. He moved out recently to look for work as a farmhand in neighbouring Basra Governorate, taking his family with him. Also left behind were his family's crops, as well as the watermelons and sunflowers they realised would wither and die before harvest.

Drought threatens food security

In the Horn of Africa, millions of people suffer from chronic and cyclical food insecurity. The increasing frequency and the increased intensity of droughts induced by climate change is a key driver of this situation.

In Somalia, since the end of the 2011 famine, which caused the death of around 260,000 people – half of them children under five – recurrent drought, food insecurity and subsequent famine risk have continued to trigger displacement. Drought also affects food and water prices, which doubled in some cases in Burco, Galkayo and Qardho during Sima. "If prices skyrocket, families have no choice but to think of where they can get cheaper and affordable food," said the leader of a women’s association in Galkayo.

Drought forces people to move

After years of livestock deaths, decreasing agricultural yields and crop failures, ever more families feel forced to move. Displacement takes different forms according to the barriers and opportunities for movement that exist for each individual. Whilst social and tribal connections can act as an important safety net, an IDP camp is the destination for many.

IDP camps have played an important role in the Somali region of Ethiopia. Pastoralists displaced during and in the aftermath of drought live in peri-urban camps for IDPs over a protracted period and in the midst of a neglected crisis. They are highly dependent on humanitarian aid that has gradually shrunk in the region over the last couple of years as intercommunal conflicts have taken priority.

Video: Koracle IDP site represents a new way of life for these semi-nomadic pastoralists from Ethiopia's Doolo Zone

In Iraq, most families displaced by the country's water crisis in 2018 and 2019 moved from one rural area to another. Here too, social ties are a significant factor in shaping people’s movement. Taleb, who moved from the village of al-Aghrad in Thi-Qar to work on a farm in Najaf, said: "We called friends of friends where farming is abundant. There was a farmer that knew another farmer in Najaf and he called him to recommend us. He then called us back and told us that we would get work there."

Movements caused by water scarcity in southern Iraq have also shaped the landscape of some mid-size towns and cities. As increasing numbers of people who used to depend on agriculture move away, rural areas are becoming depopulated, isolating those left behind. Rural depopulation and the loss of social capital involved is an emerging issue of concern for policymakers on displacement and migration worldwide.

In Niger, the exodus of sedentary farmers and agro-pastoralists between the harvest and the following rains is a key strategy to avoid poverty, but it appears to have only short-term effects. It does not significantly reduce households’ long-term vulnerability. Faced with recurrent challenges, some seasonal workers eventually settle permanently in urban centres. “When you see that what you have harvested isn’t enough to feed your family, those who are able to work are forced to leave," said the mayor of Isawane in Niger. "You can’t just cross your arms and wait to die.”

In Iraq, most families displaced by the country's water crisis in 2018 and 2019 moved from one rural area to another. Here too, social ties are a significant factor in shaping people’s movement. Taleb, who moved from the village of al-Aghrad in Thi-Qar to work on a farm in Najaf, said: "We called friends of friends where farming is abundant. There was a farmer that knew another farmer in Najaf and he called him to recommend us. He then called us back and told us that we would get work there."

Movements caused by water scarcity in southern Iraq have also shaped the landscape of some mid-size towns and cities. As increasing numbers of people who used to depend on agriculture move away, rural areas are becoming depopulated, isolating those left behind. Rural depopulation and the loss of social capital involved is an emerging issue of concern for policymakers on displacement and migration worldwide.

Internal displacement has been one of the main drivers of rapid and unplanned urbanisation in Somalia. A massive 80% of the country’s IDPs live in urban areas. The pace of urban growth is among the fastest in the world, and about 6.4 million people, or 45% of the population, live in cities. Around 2.2 million IDPs live in settlements in urban and peri-urban areas. Rather than fleeing to intermediary towns, most tend to travel long distances to major towns and cities. Forced evictions have become a major trigger of secondary displacement in urban areas.

Interactive : New Displacements associated with drought

The dilemma: integrate locally or return?

To stay or to return: This is the dilemma faced by displaced families. Although opportunities are different in each context, a majority of our research participants intend to remain in their host communities.

Loss of livestock dissuades displaced pastoralists from resuming their former semi-nomadic lifestyle, which focused on moving with their animals to find better pasture and water. "They don’t want to return because they have nothing to go back to. They lost everything, and if they return, they have no future. No land, no water, no pasture," explained a staff member of the Shelter Cluster in Somalia.

Patterns of displacement are often influenced by clan or tribal affiliation, which can in turn facilitate local integration. Most pastoralists who suffer large livestock losses are displaced to their extended family’s area. A positive aspect of this local integration is the coexistence between IDPs and the host community, for example in the Somali region of Ethiopia. "The relationship is very smooth. We help them. A lot of them are from the same clan and we regard them as relatives. Conflicts start when two different clans are settled in the same area," said one host community member of Warder city in Ethiopia.

The presence of NGOs and aid distribution are often pull factors for people desiring to remain in the host communities. "Our life is much better compared with my original home in Qallafe," said an IDP in Gurmad displacement site in Somalia. "I would like to stay here because there are plans and actions from international organisations.”

Some governments and durable solutions consortia are investing in efforts to improve capacities in rural areas and so reduce the pressure on urban centres, for example through basic livelihood projects. Improved access to services and livelihoods will be essential to avoid repeated displacement. "We need to have a much better and much earlier understanding of what support people need to return and then to engage in return areas to make sure their return will be sustainable. If not, people will need to come back to urban areas next year or in two years’ time when drought or flooding happens again," explained a staff member from an international organisation in Somalia.

In southern Iraq, return may be unrealistic given the magnitude of the challenge. Displaced people would return permanently if they felt they could sustain their agricultural livelihoods with enough water resources, but the question is whether these communities have already crossed a point of no return given the magnitude of the environmental challenges. "This year, many people returned to our villages for the first time in many years, thanks to the abundant rains. A lot came back from other governorates. They brought their farming equipment, seeds and work clothes with them. But after they had harvested and got their money, most of them went back to the place where they were living to support their family there," said Hussein, a displaced tribal leader in Dawaya Subdistrict, Thi-Qar, Iraq.

Tackling drought displacement: durable solutions

Research participants were asked what they would need to achieve durable solutions, and the most common responses were: job creation, vocational training, livestock, and cash.

The frequency and intensity of drought episodes has aggravated acute structural poverty and triggered cyclical displacement patterns following climate shocks. This all heightens the vulnerability of those affected. Strengthening the resilience of communities is vital in areas where people’s coping strategies are sometimes very weak.

Recovering and reimagining livelihoods

Addressing drought displacement in a way that goes beyond providing immediate humanitarian assistance implies helping people to recover or transform their former livelihoods. Participants in the research agreed that livelihood resilience is, for them, a central consideration of durable solutions initiatives and a fundamental demand of IDPs.

One example is the community-based disaster risk management regional strategy, which was developed in zones such as Doolo in the Somali region of Ethiopia. The whole community, including women, youth and elders, participate in the disaster risk reduction committees. They are given an initial cash grant to discuss the current situation and produce weather forecasts for the next season based on their experience as traditional experts: "The objective is to build the capacities of the locals and look for alternatives in terms of livelihoods," explained a member of the Disaster Prevention and Preparedness Bureau.

In Somalia, a number of activities have already been successful, including training in entrepreneurship for female heads of household to prepare them to set up small and medium-sized businesses, the provision of start-up grants, the establishment of communal farms for agro-pastoralists to plant cash crops, and vocational skills workshops.

Replenishing livestock

An important decades-old debate is whether to include the option of restocking: the delivery of livestock to drought-affected families to help them resume their lives as pastoralists. Such initiatives form a part of livelihood resilience strategies in countries such as Niger, Ethiopia, and Somalia.

Some find restocking futile because of the risk of further livestock losses in future droughts. "I don’t think restocking is the way to go with consecutive droughts," reflected a staff member of one international organisation in Ethiopia.

Opinions are also divided with regards to the prospective impacts of restocking. Since raising livestock is not possible in peri-urban areas, restocking could prompt many to return to a pastoral and semi-nomadic way of life. Yet proximity to peri-urban areas enables better access to services such as education, healthcare, and water. "If we have livestock again, we are not taking our children out of school. Some parts of the family will remain here, and others will go back to our pastoral lifestyle," explained a male pastoralist in Koracle camp, Ethiopia.

Family-level strategies

After the severity of the most recent drought in Ethiopia, IDPs felt they had developed new coping strategies: "We have learnt a lot from the experience we had in the past. We can do two things if another drought comes," said a pastoralist in Koracle camp in Ethiopia. "First, we can sell the animals and make money before we run out of pasture and water, and, after the drought, buy animals again. Second, in small towns like Warder, there are more services and infrastructure. We can come here to the animal feeding centres during the drought."

In Iraq, some farmers have taken measures to adapt to their changing environment and sustain their livelihoods. Some in Basra have abandoned planting summer crops to avoid losses incurred because of heatwaves, despite the fact that they lose income as a result. Farmers in Thi-Qar and Missan have dug wells to substitute freshwater, but groundwater quality is also far from optimal and there is a risk of over-extraction. There has also been an increase, albeit very small, in the use of greenhouses with drip irrigation systems.

In Niger, some research participants said they had been able to increase their crop yields compared with previous years despite the trying conditions. The mayor of Isawane had recently bought enhanced seeds in the hope of increasing his yields. "We have to find strategies to survive," he said. Several people we interviewed also noted the potential of using enhanced seeds as an effective response to climate change impacts.

These household strategies emphasise the need for greater commitment to put people at the centre of the durable solutions agenda and to view them, not as victims, but as experts in their own situation, who can actively participate in decision-making and planning processes in order to improve sustainability.

From funding projects to financing durable solutions

Governments around the world have started looking for durable solutions to displacement. The Somalia Durable Solutions Initiative (DSI) was launched in early 2016, leading to the introduction of 24 new federal and state policies and guidelines over the following two years. Ethiopia DSI, launched in December 2019, provides an operational framework to design and implement durable solutions in support of IDPs and host communities.

Governments, UN agencies and NGOs argue for donors to take more risks and engage in durable solutions involving humanitarian, development, and peace actors. The message is that donors and partners cannot continue to provide emergency assistance when what is clearly needed are long-term solutions given the protracted nature of some displacement: "Now is the time for taking action from donors to support the existing partners and agencies with expertise in durable solutions," said an interviewee from the Somali regional government.

The localisation of durable solutions – investing more in local capacities rather than international actors – is the most effective way of addressing these challenges. "The places where displaced people are and the places they want to return to are where solutions have to be created," said a staff member from an international organisation.

Innovation at the heart of durable solutions

Agencies and governments agree that innovative approaches are needed in order to make a lasting difference for the displaced populations. They are working together with IDMC to better understand, through system dynamics modelling, which factors contribute to drought displacement and which programmes and responses will most likely help achieve durable solutions.

This modelling will analyse historical data on phenomena such as food insecurity, malnutrition, climate hazards, and population changes, and enhance our understanding of how they are interconnected and ultimately lead to internal displacement. The model will also generate scenarios of different programmes and responses and their impacts on reducing displacement and achieving durable solutions. The pilot of the model for pastoralist zones in Somalia and Ethiopia will be ready in September 2020.