What we know about climate and mobility in the Horn of Africa

Why is it important to consider climate in relation to mobility in the Horn of Africa?

The Horn of Africa experiences extreme variations in climate, and uncertainty over climatic conditions. This manifests in erratic rainfall, high temperatures, prolonged droughts, increasing floods and intensifying land degradation. Political conflict, economic insecurity and weak governance have further compounded the negative effects of environmental change.

The dryland areas of the Horn of Africa are home to pastoralist and agro-pastoralist communities. For them, mobility has always been an important way to innovatively exploit the disequilibrium of the environment, and access the pasture and water their animals need. Over time, the degree to which this mobility is voluntary has changed: many pastoralists are being pushed to move longer distances in order to sustain their livelihoods and in insecure contexts. As a result, there has been a marked increase in the number of cross-border migrants and internally displaced people (IDPs).

When environmental factors overlap with socioeconomic realities, they may lead to some people moving in new ways, while others may be unable to move. Some people may be so destitute that they are unable to leave the area they currently live in. 

The relationship can also be seen in reverse – with migration affecting the environment. This is visible in the rapid urbanisation of the Horn of Africa, and where the large-scale movement of people has led to the establishment of camps and settlements, for example in internal displacement, rural-to-urban migration and forced displacement. These movements, in turn, put pressure on available resources in hosting areas.

How do we currently think about climate and migration in the region?

Climate policy debates are often more extensively informed by the physical sciences than the social sciences. At the global level, we tend to focus on reducing carbon emissions as a means of slowing global warming. At the local level, we often emphasise efforts to reduce the physical impacts of climate change – such as reforestation, agricultural support, and flood protection. We give much less attention to the adaptive behaviours that populations affected by climate change engage in, including mobility. 

In development policy broadly speaking, migration is often seen as being a problem to be solved rather than a potentially positive form of adaptation. As a result, migration continues to be framed in terms of displacement and disasters. This negative framing can prevent us from considering migration to be a potential adaptation strategy when formulating climate policy and programmes. It hides the already existing mobilities that are a key part of life for many communities in the Horn of Africa, and which help people to have viable livelihoods in challenging environments. This is a gap that needs addressing. 

Which study is a good example of a different viewpoint on climate and migration in the Horn of Africa?

Pastoral production systems in the Somali Region of Ethiopia and in Togdheer and Maroodijeex in Somaliland have relied on mobility – including moving livestock from one grazing ground to another in a seasonal cycle, and trekking livestock to different markets. These areas are part of the wider ‘Somali export zone’, where commercial livestock keeping is a major – if not the most important – contributor to the economy. 

Communities in the region have moved from a livestock-based subsistence economy to one based on the export of livestock. Here, informal and formal cross-border livestock trade is sustained through complex social networks that link the rangelands with the ports of Berbera and Bosaso through a series of clan-based corridors. Livestock from Ethiopia, Somalia and Somaliland are sold in terminal markets in Togwajale, Hargeisa and Burao, and the contributions from these large-scale livestock sales are estimated at over US$400 million annually.

Commercialisation of livestock has occurred while grazing areas have shrunk, rangeland has been converted into agricultural land, and large areas of land have been privatised for individual households. This has had critical implications for livestock mobility and human settlements, which have in turn also contributed to environmental change. Take for example the impact of the proliferation of berkads or water cisterns in the Hawd zone in Somaliland. Whereas the rangeland was traditionally used in the rainy seasons to feed herds, the area is increasingly grazed all year round, because stored water is available from berkads. This means the rangeland can’t regenerate. 

In Ethiopia’s Somali Region, land fragmentation has not only resulted in drastically reduced livestock mobility, it has also driven a breakdown of collective and cooperative pastoral systems. Changes in land use have also led to more pastoralists adopting a settled way of life. For instance, in many parts of the Hawd zone of Somaliland, villages are now reportedly 20 kilometres apart thanks to the mushrooming of settlements around water points.

We see various kinds of human mobilities in the dryland areas of the Horn of Africa, against the backdrop of changing patterns of livestock mobility. Some pastoralists continue to exploit their environments innovatively by moving herds and families over the landscape and across borders. For some, mobility remains a positive adaptation strategy where the environment is in disequilibrium, although it is increasingly constrained by the complex set of factors we’ve described. Other people are moving towards urban centres as part of a strategy to diversify their livelihoods and increase their income.

In Ethiopia, the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center reports that 2.8 million people were internally displaced from ‘disasters’, particularly drought and flood, in the period between 2008 and 2021. Displacement in the context of drought has also noticeably increased in Somaliland, with many households moving closer to urban areas of the country. The displacement caused by extended and severe droughts has been exacerbated by limited preparedness and inadequate responses from governments.

In 2022-2023, the Research and Evidence Facility set out to understand how people living with environmental stress make decisions about mobility in the Horn of Africa. This was led by researchers Abdirahman Ahmed (Jigjiga University), Mohamed Fadal (Social Research and Development Institute) and Hussein Abdullahi Mahmoud (United States International University, Nairobi). They focused on three study sites located in the Hawd zone of the Togdheer and Maroodijeex regions of Somaliland, the Fafan and Doollo Zones of the Somali Regional State of Ethiopia and the Tana River Basin of coastal Kenya. Alongside this, they considered how mobility and displacement has adapted to changing climatic conditions and how this movement is – or is not -framed in climate policy, programmes and research.

What inspires us to look at this differently?

The 2017 Somaliland National Development Plan recognises that economic production and trade are dominated by the livestock sector, which provides a livelihood to as much as 34 per cent of the population. It recognises that the impact of drought on livestock, accounting for around 30% of gross domestic product, is a significant economic threat.

But the impact of drought is no longer unusual to pastoral and agro-pastoral communities living in the Hawd zone of Somaliland. As researcher Mohamed Fadal puts it, they know more about climate change than those responsible for formulating development policy and programming, but “nobody asks them or bothers to tap into their rich traditional knowledge.”

This study drew mostly on qualitative methods – key informant interviews and focus group discussions, with a total of 108 participants.

The research team also used participatory mapping to understand migration patterns and how they’ve changed. This gave insights into changes in grazing areas over time, the movements of people out of rural areas, and how interventions such as the drilling boreholes or construction of berkads have led to temporary or permanent settlements. The mapping exercise also prompted discussions around changes to land use, movement, livelihoods, conflict trends and the availability of services.

Participatory map produced with focus group participants in Bali Mataan, Somaliland, by Mohamed Fadal.

Read more about closing the environment-migration gap in climate policy and programmes.

For pastoral and agro-pastoral communities in Somaliland, cimilo (the climate) is extremely important for their livelihoods.

In Goljano, Ethiopia, a participant described changes to grazing areas as follows: “the grasses were as tall as us when we were young. We used to hide and play in the tall grasses just in front of our houses. Now, look at every corner, it [is] just dust, no grass.”

Traditional methods for planning livelihood activities depended on interpreting wind directions and seasonal temperature changes, for example, to predict the timing and strength of seasonal rains. All these indicators are changing as a result of climate change. This makes it difficult to plan livestock breeding periods, seasonal migrations, decisions about storing water for the dry season, and sales of farm and livestock products.

Elders consulted for the study in the Yo’ob area of Ethiopia said:

“we used to read stars and forecast the upcoming year’s weather. None of these predictions no longer hold the water… But those forecasting things are sin and now we have discarded it as we shall not interfere with Allah’s will.”

Organisations like the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), the World Food Programme (WFP), the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and others have access to early warning systems to predict shifts in the climate. But district officials in Ethiopia’s Somali Regional State pointed out that no climate-related early warning information was regularly communicated to them that would enable them, in turn, to inform the community and take the necessary preventive measures. In Somaliland, the National Disaster Preparedness and Food Reserve Authority, established in 2018, is responsible for producing a Drought Early Warning Monthly Report, alongside other activities that have made it the lead official agency for drought preparedness.

Environmental change has changed the nature of livelihoods, as well as how people plan them. In Somaliland, communities have become dependent on sheep and goats rather than camel herds, which have become labour-intensive and costly to maintain. Camels also require longer migrations to access pasture and water, which runs against the increasing sedentarisation of communities, and their experimentation with rain-fed agriculture. Research participants mentioned that people in the area had sold off even their pack camels, which they had previously used for transport.

Although conflict remains the main driver of displacement in Ethiopia, environmental change has also shaped various forms of mobilities. Agricultural productivity has fallen and food insecurity has risen, according to the World Food Programme, leading to a rise in rural unemployment. Many people, especially young people, are moving between rural areas and to urban centres. Young people move to other rural locations with the seasons, to work in agricultural jobs such as in sugar plantations or in construction.

Meanwhile, a massive influx of youth migrants to urban centres in Ethiopia has outpaced the opportunities for work or education. This means many young migrants have been forced into street vending, a precarious livelihood with little to no protection. In rural destinations, a lack of employment opportunities, social protection, or government safety nets may mean migrants become trapped in locations where temporary labour is no longer available. Not only does this decrease young people’s resilience, in a situation of economic precarity they may also become potential recruits for non-state armed actors such as ethnic militias.

How can these studies help us think differently about mobility?

Professor Hussein Abdullahi Mahmoud, USIU-Africa, lead researcher on the Tana River study, which explored mobility and migration in the context of strategies of adaptation to dynamic environmental changes in Tana River County of coastal Kenya. 

Our research confirms that mobility remains a key strategy for managing risks and adapting to climate variability, ecological degradation and various other socioeconomic and political factors affecting livelihoods.

In the Somali Region of Ethiopia, the Hawd zone of Somaliland, and the Tana River region of Kenya, communities move in various ways to survive in the face of continuous drought. 

In the research areas covered by our work, communities moved in response to dwindling herds of livestock, diminishing land productivity and weak governance. Moving allowed them  to find pasture and water both close by and far away, to take jobs in urban areas, and to join IDP camps as a last resort. Yet this mobility isn’t prominent in climate-related policies and plans in the countries we studied.

But importantly, how far people move and how long they move for is not solely determined by environmental factors. Instead, mobility patterns reflect the complex and context-specific ways that the environment interacts with social, political and economic dynamics. 

In the Somaliland research sites, migration decisions are normally taken by individual and extended families and often by both parents. Male heads of households usually make the final decision, in consultation with the female members of the family, who do the bulk of the work preparing to move. Decisions have historically also been informed by community and individual family scouts (sahan) sent to assess the quality of resources elsewhere. However, communication technologies have reduced the role of scouts, and mobile phones are now widely used to access and share information regarding rainfall, pasture quality, density of settlements, prevalence of diseases or pests, and the security situation. Changes to transport have also shaped decision-making, with some members of the community using commercial transport to check pasture and water situations and identify settlement spots.

What’s more, we need to understand the importance of staying put to understand pastoralists’ experiences of life in a changing environment. In the words of one key informant:

“The whole area of the Somali region is hit by this drought and we had been migrating with nowhere to go. In previous times, the Jigjiga woreda [district] and the Kebribayah woreda used to be areas that the people migrated [to] during the drought in search of pasture and water.”

Similarly, Mohamud, a local elder in the Kebribayah district in the Somali Region of Ethiopia said:

“There is nowhere to move. The drought has equally affected places that we used to migrate to in the past. That is why we name this drought as sima [equaliser], as it equally affected everywhere in the region…In the past, this area was relatively better than other parts of the region in terms of pasture and water, but now the recent drought has equalised us”.

A key finding of this study, as reported by participants across the research sites, is that shorter movements are becoming increasingly common, and longer distance migrations less frequent. For example, participants interviewed in Ethiopia reported that short seasonal movements within the Fafan zone were now more common, since it receives relatively better rainfall than the rest of the region and the pasture in parts of Fafan zone is often better than elsewhere in the Somali region. However, the repeated droughts experienced recently have affected these places equally badly, and agro-pastoral communities reported that they had to remain in or return to their places of residence. 

How can these studies help us think differently about development?

Climate change responses require a holistic approach that incorporates a myriad of responses – one of which is mobility. While some mobility results from negative pressure on people’s livelihoods, very often people rely on mobility as a regular strategy to manage their pastoral activities, and blocking or disrupting these forms of movement can have significant negative impacts on people’s coping strategies, including forcing them into a more permanent exit from pastoralism and/or longer-term displacement.

The policy environment in the areas we studied, despite having made significant strides over time, does not adequately accommodate the needs and experiences of pastoral and agro-pastoral communities, and the mobile subsistence economies they participate in. Existing climate-related policies and plans in Ethiopia, coastal Kenya, and Somaliland do not adequately consider migration and mobility. In Ethiopia in particular, they tend to favour the interests and needs of the agricultural areas at the centre. Any mention of migration appears to prioritise internal migration from rural areas to urban centres. Even when policies and plans do recognise the everyday or seasonal mobilities that pastoralists engage in frequently and innovatively, economic migration trumps other kinds.

Programmes purporting to address climate change and ecological degradation issues in the two countries tend to be reactive rather than preventative, short-sighted and even harmful to the environment. Some initiatives – such as those on water infrastructure – may also lead to conflict, environmental degradation and wealth disparity. For example, despite the considerable evidence linking the development of berkads and other water infrastructure to such negative outcomes, water infrastructure programmes remain high on the development agenda, especially as the current drought persists. Privatisation of water and land also drives wealth disparities in pastoralist areas, especially among those with a livestock export-oriented economy.

In the past few years, policies aimed specifically to serve pastoralist communities have come into force. Yet these tend to prioritise sedentarisation among pastoralist communities and encouraging them to adopt village lifestyles, and pathways to alternative livelihoods. Mobility is thus framed in negative terms.

Nevertheless, there is scope for reframing the potential role of mobility in the context of environmental change. In Ethiopia, for example, health extension, agricultural extension and pastoral education are now included within regional development policies, aiming to improve service access for pastoralist communities through the use of mobile teams. 

What did this study teach us about researching mobility in a development context, and in the Horn of Africa?

Climatic events have always been a driver of internal and cross-border mobility in different parts of the Horn of Africa region. The environmental pressures related to droughts have been the cause of seasonal movements of migration as part of an adaptive strategy to respond to them. The recent significant changes in seasonal rainfall patterns causing more frequent and intense droughts in some parts of the region as well as flash flooding in others are severely affecting traditional movement patterns. Numerous pastoralist and agro-pastoralist communities have been dramatically weakened in their ability to raise livestock, grow crops and buy additional food items. The region is currently the site of the worst climatic crisis on record creating a dramatic food insecurity situation, which is threatening the lives and affecting, if not destroying, the livelihoods of millions in parts of Ethiopia and Somalia as well as Kenya.

Many countries of the region are making substantial efforts to respond to the magnitude of recurring droughts and other natural disasters with international support. However these efforts tend to frame mobility in negative terms. As such responses may sometimes be designed to promote sedentarization among pastoralist communities and encourage them to adopt alternative livelihoods. 

What impact did (or could) this study have, and what’s next?

The countries of the Horn have recognized regional cooperation as critical for handling climate-linked migration and displacement. In that respect, the creation of the Intergovernmental Authority on Drought and Development (IGADD) in 1986, then transformed into the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) in 1996 is a tangible proof of that recognition. The recent Kampala declaration on Migration, Climate Change and Environment in 2022 as well as the Protocol on Free Movement of Persons in 2020 are considered vital in creating and promoting a regional approach. 

As climate related policies do not always consider the needs and lifestyle of pastoral and agro-pastoral communities as well as the mobile subsistence economies they depend upon, such a study can support the design of better informed regional, national and area based preventive development programmes and responses.

In order for mobility to be fully appreciated as an adaptation to climate change, national development plans, climate strategies, and assistance policies need to integrate programming on migration, displacement and urbanisation into their climate change preparedness and response strategies.

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