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Ethiopia plans ambitious resettlement of people buffeted by East Africa drought

Ethiopia sees voluntary resettlement of seminomadic peoples into villages as a longterm solution for dealing with the impact of East Africa's droughts.

By William DavisonContributor / August 1, 2011

Mother Lula Robe, with baby Nasre,holds cooking oil provided by the UN’s World Food Program. Most of the family’s livestock died during the current drought.

William Davison

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Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

In Ethiopia's rain-starved eastern badlands, livestock is the sole asset for most. Swaddled in robes, pastoralist families traverse huge tracts searching for water and pasture for their herds, uprooting camps as they go. When seasonal rains fail, life becomes a battle for survival.

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  • Ethiopia

    Graphic Ethiopia
    (Rich Clabaugh/Staff)

As aid agencies scramble to feed some 11.5 million people suffering from what is being called the Horn of Africa's worst drought in 60 years, Ethiopia's government is enacting a resettlement program that it hopes will be a longlasting solution to a longstanding burden.

In its far-flung regions, including the vast east, populated mostly by ethnic Somali pastoralists, Ethiopia wants to group its scattered semi-nomadic peoples into permanent settlements, largely ending a mobile lifestyle that has sustained people for centuries.

In many ways the plan sounds all too familiar. During the catastrophic famine in the mid-1980s, Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam's Marxist junta forced highlanders across the country to fertile lowlands. Tens of thousands perished en route or died in their new, alien surroundings. This time, however, the government says resettlement is voluntary and consists of regional destinations instead of a mass, cross-country exodus.

In the Somali region, which has just under 1.5 million people out of about 5 million in need of food aid, the idea is to create villages near rivers and build irrigation systems, roads, health clinics, and schools. The government sees this as a life-saving measure and as a way to help the pastoralists benefit from Ethiopia's double-digit economic growth. A government pastoralist project with the long-term aim of resettlement will receive some of the $500 million for "building long-term drought resilience" in the region, the World Bank said in late July.

"Especially for pastoralists, the solution is development interventions," says Agriculture State Minister Mitiku Kassa, "water-centered development. Most areas have surface water and there are rivers." In the dry regions of Somali and Afar, the government hopes 500,000 people in each will resettle, while in the western states of Gambella and Benishangul-Gumuz it wants 450,000 to move.

The pastoralist lifestyle is becoming difficult to sustain, says Eugene Owusu, the United Nations humanitarian coordinator in Ethiopia. "Therefore they need to look at alternative development solutions." Although initially donors were slow to support the program, he has "no doubt" it could have a transformative effect on struggling communities "if it's done well."

But some activists say the programs overseen by local governments will be coercive and rob people of their ancestral lands. They cite an incident in Gambella in which a family that was reluctant to move had their huts torched, possibly by local officials. Others say giving Ethiopia's estimated 9 million pastoralists services without impeding their traditional lifestyles is a better way.

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