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Climate Change and Pastoralism



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Ced Hesse Ced Hesse describes the challenges facing African pastoralists and key areas of policy intervention needed to help them cope with climate change.
The author directs the Drylands Programme at the International Institute for Environment and Development.

Climatic fluctuations are a defining characteristic of dryland areas in Africa. Pastoralism is a livelihood system that enables dryland people to cope with these fluctuations. But pastoral systems depend on maintaining a delicate balance between pastures, livestock and people. Central to this is livestock mobility - moving herds to areas with better grazing conditions, particularly in dry periods.

Most climate change models predict rising temperatures and decreasing rainfalls in many African dryland areas. Rainfall will be increasingly erratic and more extreme weather conditions, such as droughts, are expected. This could undermine the delicate balance on which pastoral systems depend.

Decreases in pasture quality and quantity, due to low rainfall, mean pastoralists could lose their livestock and face destitution. Livestock are also more than economic assets - they are cultural and spiritual assets and define social identity. Scarcer resources and demographic growth are likely to increase competition for natural resources - possibly resulting in conflict and loss of livestock and livelihoods.

In northwest Kenya, several years of low rainfall have recently resulted in the death of many livestock, and in a major food crisis among the Turkana pastoralists.

Negative perceptions of pastoral systems have resulted in unfavourable policies in the past, particularly policies constraining herd mobility, damaging common property regimes under which many pastoralist systems operate and supporting agricultural encroachment. Pastoralists have, therefore, become more 'sedentary'. But in a changing environment, herd mobility will become even more important.

Experience shows that where pastoralists cannot move to refuge areas in times of crisis, the little available pasture and water attracts more livestock and people. This exacerbates environmental degradation around water points and leads to declining livestock health and productivity.

Tackling these issues requires action at local, national and international levels. Long-standing negative perceptions of pastoralism must be replaced by recognition of the rationale of such systems in dryland areas.

Key areas of policy intervention include:

  • enabling herd mobility while securing rights to critical pastures and water resources;
  • supporting pastoral livelihoods through better water access, service provision and support for livelihood diversification;
  • building robust conflict management institutions and effective drought mitigation systems, including early warning and insurance; and,
  • strengthening pastoral group capacity to engage in policy debates.

Further information

Ced Hesse, 3 Endsleigh Street, London WC1H 0DD, UK. Fax: +44-20-73882826. Email: ced.hesse@iied.org.

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Tiempo Climate Newswatch
Updated: April 12th 2013