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The semi-arid plains of the Middle Awash River Basin in Ethiopia are home to pastoralists, communities who herd camels, cattle and goats and move seasonally, following the rains wherever they go.

Changing weather patters, increasingly severe droughts, and extreme dry spells that hit Eastern Africa in 2011, 2015 and again in 2017 have made it practically impossible to live off the land in the region.

The long months without rain cause animals to steadily weaken, while the pastoralists cover larger and larger distances in an effort to find water and pasture in an extremely dry landscape. Animals may also be forced to drink from shrinking water bodies contaminated by pathogens and toxins. With their cattle dying by the dozens, the pastoralist communities see their way of life threatened by a changing climate.

When researcher Jennifer Leavy passed through the Awash Basin in 2016, she was struck by the amount of skulls she would encounter. “They were almost artfully perched at the side of the fences. As we talked to people they told us about the incredible toll the recent drought has been having on their lives and livelihoods, and how depressing it has been.”

Jennifer is part of ASSAR, a group of researchers studying climate adaptation accross seven countries in India, East Africa, West Africa and Southern Africa. “One of the community members was very insistent on taking me on a tour of the village with my camera. As we went round it was horribly apparent that the skulls I had seen were just the tip of the iceberg.”

A water tanker from the government that visits the community every other week has become their last source of water. Whenever the tanker passes by, the whole town gathers to get their jerrycans filled up.

Hope is spreading thin, however, and many villagers have migrated to other river basins. Rather than following their traditional routes for cattle herding, people are trying their luck at the Oromiya or the Amhara regions, hoping to find more vegetation there.


All pictures by Jennifer Leavy, a researcher at the ASSAR consortium.

Arthur Wyns

About Arthur Wyns

Arthur Wyns is a tropical biologist and science journalist who writes about climate change, environment and migration. He manages Programs and Partnerships for Climate Tracker since 2017. With a group of biologists he founded Lonely Creatures, an organisation that brings under attention the stories of endangered species around the world.