NBE Blog

Increasing water access for livestock in Africa’s arid lands

By Martin Ager – Africa has belts of arid and semi-arid land both north and south of the Equator with an average annual rainfall of less than 500mm per year.

While rainfall variability is a major characteristic of Africa’s drylands, climate change has resulted in an increased frequency of weather extremes such as droughts floods and high temperatures during the last few decades.



Droughts may lead to conflicts over scarce resources and together these are often the main drivers behind severe food crises.

Despite the apparent barrenness of these arid lands, human ingenuity is such that people have been able to adapt through the herding of livestock. Stretching across Africa’s drylands, from the Sahel in the west to the rangelands of East Africa and the Kalahari and Namib deserts of Southern Africa, pastoralism is the main livelihood of an estimated 268 million people.

Africa’s drylands are home to pastoral communities who depend on extensive livestock production, mainly cattle, camels, sheep, and goats, as their most important source of both food security and income. Pastoral livestock production involves varying degrees of seasonal movement to access grazing and water.

The access to these resources may be on an open-access arrangement or may be subject to communal management with agreement on which people have rights of access at which times of the year. Pastoralism is practiced in an estimated 43 percent of Africa’s land mass. In some regions, it represents the dominant livelihoods system.

Droughts typically lead to shortages of water and animal feed. As a result, pastoralists endure a precarious livelihood on the edge of viability with a constant challenge to find enough water and grazing for their animals, especially as the droughts become more frequent.

Animals are highly affected and in these hard conditions become wasted and even face multiple deaths. The pastoralists are sometimes forced to sell animals at low prices affecting their livelihoods.

Depending on how dry the area is, the pastoralists may be nomadic or semi-nomadic to follow the grazing and water with the seasons. Animals often have to be driven long distances to water points and the pasture is so sparse that the vegetation may only be enough to support perhaps one animal per hectare.

This shows the extreme importance of the availability of water for the livelihoods of these communities.

When drought limits the grass and water available, herds may be taken into areas normally used by others, even across international borders, and this is often a cause of localized armed conflict.

Efforts to support pastoralists
Despite the hardships and uncertainties, livestock can provide a good livelihood. Due to the more frequent occurrence of droughts, there is frequently a need to provide emergency assistance to pastoralists.

Governments and development partners may provide fodder and vaccinations to help livestock survive the harsh conditions.

In extreme circumstances, support is given to de-stock the land by providing a fair price for animals as was done, for example, in the Ethiopian drought between 2015 and 2017 with the support of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and partners.

The remaining livestock had a better chance of survival from the limited grazing and water available.

While such interventions can maintain livelihoods in a crisis, it has to be recognized that longer-term solutions are needed to improve the management of water and pasture to make livestock herding systems more sustainable and resilient to climate change.

A key intervention is strengthening pastoralists’ access to water. This includes the establishment of additional water points for livestock as well as measures to improve pasture or develop the supply of fodder.

New water points should, however, be sited carefully to ensure that they will not bring more animals into an area than the grass will support or lead to potential conflicts.

Where groundwater is available, Governments, development partners and individuals have undertaken initiatives to drill boreholes. Solar pumping is becoming an attractive investment for boreholes because of price reductions and efficiency improvements in recent years.

As rainfall in arid lands often comes in intense storms, much of the water runs off quickly and is lost. A variety of techniques can be used to retain surface water including small earth dams on temporary streams.

These have proved to be successful in several countries including Burkina Faso, Swaziland, and Zimbabwe. Subsurface dams to allow water to be drawn from shallow wells in sandy river beds once the surface flow dries up have been tried in Uganda and elsewhere.

Rainwater harvesting structures to collect surface flow into tanks have been built in countries including Djibouti and Ethiopia.

Another point worth noting is the problem of overgrazing, a major cause of desertification in the Sahel and elsewhere. A number of possible initiatives have been identified to improve the availability of grazing or fodder to improve the resilience of pastoralists.

A method of grazing management that involves planned resting of areas to allow the recovery of natural vegetation is a traditional approach. Uganda has initiated the engagement of communities to agree to such management systems.

Moreover, commercialization of fodder production, with irrigation where required, is a strategy that is being tried in many countries. As the value of the livestock is so significant, it is sometimes viable to purchase feed on the market to fatten livestock and to help them survive through difficult periods.

Africa, with its vast livestock resources, has a strong livestock export potential to the Arabian Peninsula, Europe and elsewhere. According to the African Union Pastoral Policy Framework, livestock and related products contribute at least 50% of the marketed production of the continent.

Recent studies show that improving both water and fodder availability so that animals are in a better condition and will command a higher price when they reach the market can improve the income and thereby the resilience of herders.

Countries and development actors should work on improving their livestock strategies to create long-term solutions to withstand climate change impacts for vulnerable communities.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Martin Ager works as a Land and Water Officer in the FAO Subregional Office for Eastern Africa