The future of pastoralism

Emergency relief camps in north eastern Kenya are full of pastoralists whose livelihoods have been destroyed as a result of recurring droughts.

The droughts have decimated their livestock. Now many of them have been forced to forsake their traditional culture.

Kausa with one of her remaining grandchildren

We visited a refugee camp in El Wak where I met Kausa, a 50-year-old grandmother. After the rains failed and drought killed her livestock, she was forced to leave her home and walk more than 50 miles to El Wak to get help. By the time she arrived at the camp four days later, two of her grandchildren had died. She said:

“My husband ran away when the animals died. There was no water, no food. First the cows died, then the goats and the camels. I knew we had to leave. Everyone was weak from hunger and thirst.”

She now depends on handouts in El Wak as she’s unable to provide food for her remaining ten children and six grandchildren.


Former pastoralist Fatima outside her make-shift grass hut in an emergency relief camp.


Another grandmother, Fatima, aged 56, told me that when she lost her herd of 200 goats she knew that life as a pastoralist as over. She said:

“I know I cannot go back and I will now carry firewood on my back to earn money to feed my family because there is not enough food here to feed everybody.”

The pain and suffering that I saw here made me so deeply sad but also frustrated. There is aid coming into the Mandera region. Indeed, the guest house that we were staying at was also hosting people from humanitarian aid organisations.

People collect food aid from a distribution centre

But this is food aid they are bringing for people, not the livestock they depend on. Yes, these people are hungry and need food – I can’t disagree with that. But this is a short-term survival solution. They cannot live on handouts forever.

In drought-affected regions of Kenya, 25-50% of livestock is expected to be dead by January. In parts of Mandera County, 65% of cattle are estimated to have died.

Unless decisive action is taken to help these nomadic herders adapt even further to the extremes of climate change, they will no longer be able to sustain their way of life. There must be a huge programme of investment to enable pastoralists to cope with climate change.

Practical Action is working with communities on a variety of projects such as:

  • rehabilitating water structures such as shallow wells
  • improving the market for livestock
  • supporting animal health services working with authorities and organisations on managing drought situations
  • improving access to information services on health, water, vaccinations, seasonal forecasts and technology
  • linking them to other emergency service providers.

You can find out more about these projects by following my blog.

4 responses to “The future of pastoralism”

  1. Robert Bwage Says:

    The powerful uprise in the Arid Northern Kenya is acces to information,which will help in improving the knowledge of the residents on available markets and better means of improvising their lives. The people,in their high percentages lack basic commodities and mainly relly on relief help. Practical Action is doing a good work in helping them. Keep it up.

  2. Gemma Hume Says:

    Hi Robert, yes, access to information is a large part of this project. Thank you for your kind comment about Practical Action and your continued support.

  3. Emmanuel Ndulet Says:

    wonderfull task your doing Practical Action. Pastoralism is discouraging live for the’s faced both uncontrolled and controlled challenges this means climatical change is uncontrolled one while poor policy to favour the pastoralism is controlled one leave alone climatical change or global warming which resulted into prolonged drought but committement from many African regimes push out pastoralism as viable means of production.poor livestock infrastructure,insufficient involvement in decision making process and land grabbing contributed to existing situation of pastoralist.

  4. Abdul Haro Says:

    Indeed I agree with Ndulet’s comment but flipping the other side of the coin the comment reinforces the fact that pastoralism is undoubtedly a very resilient system. This is explained by the fact that in spite of all the forces weighing against it, Pastoralism has soldiered on and is still soldiering on. Pastoralism is facing many challenges and so are other biological systems e.g. crop agriculture, fishing, etc. Looking at the fishing industry for example, the future of ocean fishing will revolve around dialogue around conserving fish stocks, fishing quotas and also decommissioning of trawlers. Debates about pastoralism should therefore be viewed in the light of dialogue around dynamics involving nature, policies and human factor. If we appreciate this, we will appreciate the fact that the future of pastoralism includes those who with appropriate support may just remain within the sector and those who will inevitably be forced out. This is why we at Practical Action have at the core of our concerns the support to pastoralism as a working system of production. We look at pastoralism systemically: a system that we can now understand well enough to know that, when allowed to operate according to its own logic of specialisation, can be both economically and ecologically sustainable.

    From this perspective, one would be able to address in a coherent way virtually any policy issue concerning the management and development of the rangelands, from ecology and climate change to productivity and modernisation, from conflict and food security to service delivery and representation. Clearly, each of these issues can be tackled from very many different perspectives, and this is often the case.

    One of my friends, Saverio Kratli (Editor, Nomadic Peoples, IUAES Commission on Nomadic Peoples), sumarises the links between pastoralism, nature, policies and people in the following words: “For decades, people in the rangelands have been encouraged with considerable means and in the name of economic development and ecological arguments, to move into agro-pastoralism and either ploughing up the ‘most arable land’ or settling with their livestock – increasing the number of ‘pastoralists’ who suffer at every new drought, and therefore the frequency of droughts turning into economic disaster. However, it is only by looking at this situation with a focus on pastoralism that we are able to see the ‘arable land’ in question not as an opportunity to transform pastoralists, or an outlet for a fast-growing population of landless farmers in wetter regions, or something to attract external investors but as key grazing area. What I would like to say to policy makers about this group of people(pastoralists) is that their number is currently made bigger, and their livelihood more risky, by policies and interventions undermining the viability of specialised production strategies within pastoralism (as we know them). Therefore the interventions in support of this group of people – by all means necessary and urgent – should be carefully designed to work with (or at least not in competition with) an equally necessary and urgent overarching programme to finally support not ‘pastoralists’ or ‘livestock keeping’, or ‘pastoralism as a way of life’, but the viability of specialised pastoral production strategies and the organised networks such viability depends upon, the networks of small-scale pastoral producers and breeders which are the backbone of the ‘private sector’ in the rangelands.”

Leave a reply