Korke, Ethiopia — Not far from here, fertile highlands yield a bounty of staple Ethiopian foods: yams, hot peppers, onions, garlic, papaya and the popular cereal grain called tef. But on the rocky soils of this desert-like landscape, wildflowers, cacti and scraggly shrubs outnumber the stalks of maize and sorghum growing in small household plots.
Ethiopia's semi-arid lowland is home to large numbers of pastoralists and agro-pastoralists, people who earn a living either solely or primarily by raising livestock. These animals, mostly cattle, function as savings accounts for millions of families. They're a dependable source of nutritious milk, but more importantly, they're liquid assets that form the basis of family wealth. A single cow can fetch up to 1000 Birr, or US$125 - enough to meet the everyday needs of a good-sized family for three months.
Mercy Corps is helping livestock owners protect these treasured assets in times of drought by providing vaccinations and more reliable sources of animal feed.
Mohammad Abbas knows firsthand that owning a healthy herd means the difference between keeping his family well fed and subsisting on meager crop yields and outside food aid. In 2002 and 2003, a prolonged drought led to disease outbreaks that wiped out an estimated 70 percent of Korke's livestock. Abbas lost 15 cattle, resulting in hard times for his wife and two kids.
But he hasn't lost any cattle since October 2004, when he and dozens of fellow villagers took advantage of a Mercy Corps program in which they paid, on credit, less than 1 Birr (12 U.S. cents) per head to vaccinate their herds against the region's three most prevalent drought-related diseases: Black Leg, Anthrax, and Bovine Pasteurellosis.
It wasn't the first time Abbas' cattle had received the liquid vaccines, which are delivered through an inch-long needle injected into the animal's neck. Governments had occasionally responded to past outbreaks by vaccinating cattle in the affected area free of charge. But by the time the authorities detect and respond to a rash of disease, most of the damage has been done.
"Prevention is better," says Abbas, clad in a green-and-blue-plaid sheret, the colorful waist-to-toe skirt favored by men of this region. "I'll pay whatever money they ask for these vaccinations. My animals look healthier, and the disease incidence in the area has decreased."
Since September 2004, Mercy Corps has administered more than 450,000 vaccinations to cattle and camels in the West Hararghe region, the first part of a two-pronged strategy to make livestock-dependent Ethiopians more resilient to the country's unreliable rainfall.
The agency also has established three fodder-tree nurseries, where four varieties of drought-resistant plants are grown and distributed to farmers, who can then propagate the plant starts on their land. Both programs, funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), aim to sustain livestock through dry seasons.
"We're giving them the tools they need to better protect their most precious assets, their animals," says Debele Mojo, manager of Mercy Corps' West Hararghe Livelihoods Project.
In staking his livelihood to cattle-raising, Abbas follows a tradition that's been passed down for many generations. "My family used to depend entirely on livestock raising," he says. "Now I grow some maize and sorghum also, because livestock raising is getting more difficult. There is less land to graze on. But I still get more value from rearing cattle."
The three or four heads of cattle he sells each year bring in about US$80 for an average-sized cow to more than US$120 for a fattened bull, which he uses to buy cereals, clothing and shoes for his family. Through breeding, he'll add up to five calves a year - if the rainfall is sufficient.
Some pastoralists venture far and wide in search of green pastures. About three times every dry season, Abbas rounds up his herd for a two-week journey, sometimes venturing 70 kilometers from home in search of food and water. He survives off the milk of his cows and a mix of roasted and ground sorghum and maize known as basso, and sleeps under the stars on a bed made from cattle hides. "There are no pillows," he quips.
Still, it's a life he doesn't want to give up. Abbas lives with his wife and four children, ages 1 to 8, in the typical Ethiopian village dwelling: a small, round mud hut with a conical roof made of grass. Two bulls are tied up outside. He says he received his first head of cattle from his father, and hopes to bestow some of his herd on his own children.
"God willing," he says, "I will transfer this culture to them."