Borena has a long history of climate-related humanitarian crises, with the most recent ones happening in 2000, 2010, and 2021–2023. The area, which is part of Oromia, experiences two wet seasons each year: “Ganna,” which begins in the middle of March and covers about 70 percent of the region, and “Hagayaa,” which covers about 30 percent of it. Since there aren’t any nearby rivers or lakes, Borena must rely on its two artificial water sources. One of the main remaining bodies of water is the man-made Haroo Bakke Pond, which was developed in 1966 thanks to an international effort. But it’s starting to dry up.
Currently, there are about 520 protected water sources. While 119 are not functional, 401 are functional but have dried up. There are two things that make this drought unique. One is that it is in its fifth consecutive cycle since it has failed to rain, which translates into three years since it has rained in the area. Secondly, the longevity and magnitude of the depth of the drought are unfamiliar to the people and its leaders. There is not a district in Borena that is unaffected by this drought, including other East African nations.
The government and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have identified five hospitals, 50 stabilization centers, and 46 functional sites for emergency response. These also include the outbreak of measles (127 cases reported in the Moyalle district) and the difficulty of containing the prevalence of cholera in Kenya and Somalia. With the Borena people fighting malnutrition, the onset of more diseases will start to cause an increase in the death toll.
In the past, Borena people would migrate to Kenya or Somalia to wait out the drought; however, neighboring countries have also declared a state of emergency. This has eroded its coping mechanisms and broken its resilience. This has left the people of Borena with few options for migration, leading them to follow clouds to west Arsi or Guji, but this is unlikely.
According to Borena’s zonal administration report, approximately 1.7 million people need humanitarian aid (food, water, health, and cash). Over the past three years, 3.3 million livestock have perished, approximately worth 3.3 billion birr.
There are two types of societies in Borena: the semi-agrarian society and the pastoralist society. Climate change has affected these communities in different ways. The pastoralist community lost 90 percent of their livestock. One pastoralist owns on average 200–300 cattle, of which they are left with 0–5. Goat pox, SVVP, anthrax, camel pox, and other livestock-related diseases have left the remaining cattle emaciated and sick. In some cases, even when the cattle are purchased, they die before reaching their destination. People in the region are losing their businesses.
The agrarian-dependent communities such as Teltele have suffered heavily because they entirely relied on their farming and their land. Teltele is known for cereal production, mainly teff. The loss of all animals used for traction makes a recovery a challenging task. They did not just lose their business but also their livelihood because they needed food. They also fear migration because they want to maintain their land. The containment period is overdue because the delay in early warning and response has intensified the type of aid that is needed compared to three years ago. As a result of inaction, approximately 59,000 households are destitute.
With the mild livestock trade stretching far and being known for their breed and quality, this market needs to be protected. I was able to visit the Bekke market, which is one of the largest livestock markets in east Africa. I observed that not many cattle were available at the market, and the few that were present were emaciated and had no market value.
The market even included animals such as camels and donkeys, which were also thin and of no interest to buyers. It was strange to see more than 30 empty Isuzu trucks that were supposed to be used to load and move livestock but were just sitting there with nothing to do.
Besides the cattle trade, the biggest export and import Borena relies on is the milk trade, which is now nonexistent. Borena’s economy has been declining since the beginning of the drought, and within these three years, the economy has been destroyed. Restoring the economy to what it once was will take a long time.
Also, Kenya has started to take advantage and sell two types of milk to Borena. Daima and Mount Kenya are selling 300 ml for 60 birr on the market.
The Oromo people are one of the many communities to invent a democratic system. The “age-set” system the Borena people follow is known as the Gadaa System. The Gadaa system is a system of generation classes that succeed each other every eight years in assuming political, military, judicial, legislative, and ritual responsibilities. Each of the 10 active generation classes beyond the first three grades has its own assembly. The leaders of the class become the leaders of the nation when their class comes to power in the middle of the life course, a stage of life called “Gadaa.” The class in power is headed by an officer known as Abba Gadaa.
The longevity and magnitude of this drought have put the Gadaa system in a vulnerable state. The elderly are crucial to the system’s functionality, and their absence will lead to the system’s collapse in the long run.
Tradition says that the man or elder doesn’t eat until he knows that the woman and children have eaten. By putting themselves at risk, they make sure that their family lives longer. Whenever aid arrives from NGOs or the private sector, immediate assistance goes to women and children, leaving the elderly behind. In other communities that do not follow the Gadaa system, this response is acceptable.
However, the lack of attention given to the elderly is dangerous for stabilizing Borena after the drought. The preservation of the elderly is the preservation of democracy for these communities.
Borena has assigned gender roles. The woman does the work needed for the house while the man is in the field, either herding or farming. The people of Borena are living a uniform lifestyle. No one is in a better position than the other, leveling the gender roles. The woman cannot tell the man to go to work, and the man cannot tell the woman to do her duties because he cannot provide.
During these difficult times, there have been two significant cultural changes: one is gender-based violence, and the second is begging. In the Gadaa-restricted culture of Borena, there have been almost no instances of gender-based violence. In Oromo society, the Gadaa system has effectively divided work based on gender. Men have been in charge of the mobile resources that required them to leave the homestead to do things like herding, protecting livestock and land, tilling new fields, plowing, and so on.
Women have controlled the static resources of the house, the grain, and other products of the fields once they are brought into storage. Even the cattle around the house are under their control; women milk them and decide how much milk goes to the calves, how much to the people in the household for drinking, and how much butter or cheese to eat or sell.
Fetching water from remote sources and carrying emergency food from distribution centers remain the women’s obligations. By exercising absolute day-to-day control over the disposition of the resources at every point of the decision-making process in ways that are protected by the value system of society, the woman wields determinative influence in society.
In the areas I visited, Teltele, Dilo, and Moyalle, the impact of drought and malnutrition on children and lactating mothers was significant. They were emaciated and barely walked or talked. Milk and milk-related products, which were part of their daily diet, are nonexistent. Children suckle on their empty, weak, and dried mothers. The lack of nutritionists and medications needed to fight malnutrition, such as F100, defeats the efforts of screening.
The men and women stay at home or gather outside together because there is nothing to do except wait for rain or the arrival of help. The drought has created a mindset that clouds the moral and ethical values presented in the Gadaa system because the balancing of the domains of women and men and maintaining their interdependence, which has been a precondition for keeping the peace between the sexes and for promoting moral and ethical order in society, is slowly fading away.
The media plays a huge role when it comes to raising awareness and mobilizing aid for people in Borena. Individuals in other cities and countries need accurate information on what is going on and its effects to gain donations or raise awareness. Number of local medias have been following up on the drought impacts.
Nonetheless, delayed reaction of the media to provide awareness and the misinformation spread through some news sources have caused a delay in response from the private sector and donors. Once the media started being consistent and started spreading awareness, private sectors such as the Oromia Coffee Farmers Union, the entertainment industry, Sheger City, residents of Addis Ababa and Wollaita, and other concerned citizens started donating water, food, money, and transportation.
Borena received emergency responses to this drought from different sectors: the government, private sector, NGOs and individuals. Several business companies in the country, public institutions, humanitarian organizations and NGOs, employees and individuals have pooled resources in cash and kind, and wired to Borena.
According to the zonal administration, “the government has given aid to approximately 800,000 individuals out of the 1.7 million in the form of flour, oil, and beans.” The Addis Ababa city administration also actively participated in the resource mobilization.
The zonal coordinator is responsible for storing donated items and distributing aid in an organized fashion. The coordinator identifies the areas and comes up with the distribution modalities.
Approximately 40 NGOs are present in Borena: 20 local and 20 international. They have been focusing on solar, sanitation, screenings for malnutrition, mobile health, rehabilitation, cash transfers, and education. According to the zone administrator, big NGOs such as UNICEF are present in Borena but have directed their aid toward building schools, school feeding, and distributing scholar materials.
The Red Cross’s method of cash transfer is among the most effective, efficient, and transparent form of emergency response. An individual can get what they want immediately instead of being limited by donations, illustrating the effectiveness of cash transfers. It is also efficient because it does not take a long time to provide this aid. An individual will have immediate access to this aid because the money is transferred to each household through their bank accounts. Finally, it is transparent because the number of people who received the cash is known and accounted for. The donor would have access to information to track their donations.
The distribution method was not challenging because the Gadaa system has already created a structured community. Working closely with the community and the Abba Ollaa (which are elected leaders of their own) can help with better coordination to identify the most affected. By gathering with the leaders and making a list of affected people, the Ethiopian Red Cross can assist in opening a bank account for the head of the household.
According to the Ethiopian Red Cross Moyalle district representative, the Ethiopian Red Cross has provided three rounds of cash transfer aid in Moyalle, which is divided into two sub-districts, Oromia and Somali. The eight kebeles, which include Dambi Hara, Babee, El Digalu, and Bokola, are all located in the Oromia sub district. Ralo, Gulele, Laf Sure, and Harsam are all located in the Somali district.
The Ethiopian Red Cross responded to both districts, with around 3,000 households receiving 6,000 birr each on the first round, totaling over 58,000,000 birr over three rounds. The main challenges the Red Cross faces when providing cash transfers are access to the market and remoteness.
In places like Teltele, cash transfers work well because people can get to markets in nearby southern places such as Konso. They have access to a market for grain, cattle, and other commodities they need. Similarly, Moyale cash transfers are prospering because it is a border city and has access to markets in Kenya.
However, Dilo is very remote and needs market access to commodities. Thus, humanitarian aid such as food, oil, and water tankers is the only way to respond to emergencies. The limitation of cash transfers is their dependency on market access.
The way forward
The major factor behind the Borena drought is not only the absence of rain for three consecutive years, but also government’s inefficiency to provide the infrastructure needed to access underground water. Especially the Borena Water Network Project, which planned to harvest underground water in five large reservoirs in five woredas of Borena, must be finalized a soon as possible. The project has been over fifteen years since it was launched, but delayed as both the regional and federal governments drag feet.
Provision of seed, fertilizer, plows, and other farming tools are needed right away to help semi-agrarian communities like Teltele get back on their feet. On the other hand, pastoralist areas like Dilo and Moyalle need consistent food, water aid, animal veterinary services, cash transfers, and restocking for a period.
The government, national and international NGOs, academic institutions, and private sector banks need to synergize their efforts to lift the Borena people out of the current upheaval. In addition, a transition to climate-resilient technologies, such as solar pumps for irrigation systems and hydroponic animal feed, would need to be utilized to mitigate against climate change.
Borena’s economy needs a sustainable development plan to get it going again and make it the center of Ethiopia’s livestock industry again. With the war in Ukraine, the earthquake in Turkey, and the flood in Syria, NGOs face challenges in pooling resources. Resources such as volunteers and funding are directed toward natural disasters that have received worldwide attention.
However, the crisis in Borena is just as dire, with the need to contain further suffering due to disease and starvation looming and requiring their efforts here as well. Working cooperatively with neighboring countries and coming up with a containment plan for the outbreak of cholera and measles could help reduce the scale of the spread and save more lives. All the aid that is being provided is needed by the people of Borena; however, specific issues should be prioritized, such as malnutrition, an artificial body of water, or water chemicals for purification. Climate change and global warming need to be accepted and perceived as natural disasters.
After identifying all agrarian societies in Borena, the government should put in place a policy on land use, land tenure, separate extension program for pastoralists, and cattle to maintain the overpopulated livestock. The natural endowment (water, grazing, and erosion) depletes because of the overpopulation of cattle. The collaboration of east African nations to fight climate-induced calamities will help prevent and resolve climate change disasters. Increasing the spread of awareness about climate change and educating agrarian and pastoralist communities will help build resilience in the future.
Sustainable development strategies such as providing agrarians with “seeds” and speeding up the approval process for water resource development are a few ways to speed up Borena’s recovery. Ethiopia requires a stringent national strategy to overcome the recurrence of the drought in many parts of the country, which include Borena, Afar, Somali, etc. It is beyond the responsibility of one sector or one ministry to tackle the severe damages caused by this extended drought. Ministries such as agriculture, irrigation, health, water, and energy need to create a joint strategy and implementation plan for sustainable development and end citizens suffering.