Nestled deep in Ethiopia’s highlands, in the Amhara region, Habru Woreda some 500 km from the country’s capital Addis Abeba, the small village of Berebeyu is grappling with the realities of climate change, with hundreds of its inhabitants reeling from land losses and poor harvests, or no harvests at all.
Berebeyu lies at the confluence of tributary rivers that flow from the adjacent mountain. The village is highly vulnerable to droughts, seasonal flooding, and mudslides. In 2011 a mudslide killed at least five people and forced dozens from their homes.
Small herds of roaming camels, donkeys, goats, sheep and cows trample through the village. Dead trees, gullies, bare soils and rocks exposed by flood waters are a typical sight in Berebeyu, which for generations has been home to a minority Muslim community of around 500 household.
The rapidly disappearing arable land and the trees scattered across the mountain face are a bittersweet reminder of what they have lost, and also a strong warning of what is to come.
A prolonged drought has seen many residents migrating abroad to seek alternative livelihood opportunities. Ironically, this is not always an effective coping strategy, as many are deported and forced to return to the same harsh environment that spurred their migration.
“It’s very difficult to live here; the drought is increasing in this area,” says 40-year-old Ahmed Shifare. He explains that many young men have fled to the Gulf countries, including his 16-year-old son. “For the older generation, even though the threats of drought are killing us, we have no other land to go to. Each household has at least one family member who has migrated to the Middle East; this is our way of coping with the drought,” he states.
Migration is a common adaptation strategy in Berebeyu. Older residents have long leaned on seasonal migration to complement farming. During the drought of 1984, many elders, including Shifare’s family sought employment in the city and, just like contemporary migrants they undertook all types of work, returning home to restart their farms after the drought. But Shifare says, “Following consecutive droughts in recent years, the scale of migration is nothing I have seen before; everyone is going without knowing if they will return.”
Yet, Berebeyu has demonstrated incredible resilience. Its residents have been living in the village for centuries overcoming many different challenges. But climate change and land degradation is proving to be more difficult than anything they have experienced before. Arable land has become a scarce resource. Each household is entitled to half a hectare for agricultural purposes, but demand has outstripped supply to the extent that even steep slopes are now being ploughed. The result has been an erosion of fertile soils which, combined with perennial droughts, has adversely affected crop production.
Eighty-year-old Sheik Yimam Shikuru, who lost his farm to erosion says, “All my children left me because my farm does not produce anything anymore — they went to look for better opportunities. It’s getting hot here, and when it rains, the water brings rocks and debris to my farm, killing all my crops.”
Shikuru has been living in Berebeyu for his whole life and the expression on his tired face clearly shows that he has seen better days. Four of Shikuru’s children migrated abroad to look for work, yet so far they have not been able to secure regular employment due to their inability to obtain work permits and are unable to help their father. Now older, more vulnerable and with no other livelihood opportunities, Shikuru is entirely dependent on his small, rocky and degraded farm.
While climate change is not the only push factor for migration out of the village, it acts as a ‘threat multiplier,’ worsening existing insecurities.
“I am landless, the land I am currently using is rented to me and it is very small. Now imagine what the drought will do?” says Ayalew Asifaw, a 33-year-old father. “If the land was big, I would grow a greater variety and quantity of crops — that way I could mitigate some losses, but with the size of my farm when the drought comes, what few crops I have are lost. If I get a chance today, I will leave because I will not sit and watch the drought destroy my family.”
Asifaw is no stranger to irregular migration. On three occasions he has sought to reach Saudi Arabia. He failed on the first two attempts, while during the third he managed to stay only for 18 days before being arrested by Saudi authorities and deported back to Ethiopia. It is now two years since he has been back in Berebeyu, but the prospect of staying permanently is fading. He has not ruled out the possibility of attempting to migrate a fourth time, despite the high cost involved and his increasing vulnerability upon each return.
Usmani Endris, a 29-year-old father of two, echoes the same frustrations, adding, “Land is limited here and this limited land is not productive because of climate change.” Endris is a migrant returnee; he worked in Saudi Arabia for a year prior to being deported in 2016. Since his return, he has twice sought to reach Saudi Arabia again through Bosaso in Somalia and Obock in Djibouti but was unsuccessful on both occasions.
The residents of Berebeyu are known to be positive and light-hearted people but concerns about their future survival in the face of climate change are increasingly dominating their conversations. But a seed of hope was planted in May 2019 when the International Organization for Migration (IOM), in collaboration with a local implementing partner Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekanysus Development and Social Service Commission, joined hands with the community to launch a project that is seeking to stem the tide of environmental degradation. The project aims to rehabilitate the environment while supporting the reintegration of migrant returnees by reducing land degradation in selected watershed areas through afforestation and the integration of fruit tree cultivation to support livelihoods.
The project is taking place under the European Union(EU)-IOM Joint Initiative for Migrant Protection and Reintegration (the Joint Initiative) which facilitates safe, orderly, regular and responsible migration management through the development of rights-based and development-focused procedures and processes on protection and sustainable reintegration. The Joint Initiative, backed by the EU Trust Fund, has been set up in close cooperation with 26 African States.
Community leaders following proceedings during the official launch of the EU-IOM Joint Initiative Environmental Rehabilitation Project in Kombolcha Town, Ethiopia.
Through the project, community members along with returnees will develop 50 hectares, which they will use to harvest rainwater and trap silt sediments; which in turn will improve soil fertility. Trees and grasses will be planted to restore lost vegetation cover. It is envisaged that community members and returnees will generate income from the sale of seedlings. In four years, it is expected that they will start selling the fruits. In addition, over 240 community members will participate in ‘community conversations’ on topics related to migration and land degradation.
To mitigate the effects of drought, water conservation facilities will be constructed to harvest rainwater at the foot of the mountain overlooking the village, where water usually races down. Instead of the water wasted as runoff, it will be collected, stored and used for watering the nursery and crops, especially during the dry season. Trapping the runoff will further reduce the risk of flooding and land degradation.
Speaking during a recent focus group meeting, the villagers expressed excitement, especially the prospect of beating drought and earning an income from selling fruits.
Abdu Hassen, a resident, said, “We know what to do with the land, we are experienced farmers but without water, we cannot do anything. All we need is water and land to cultivate, and if the degraded land can be useful again, that will bring joy to this village.”
Another hopeful resident, Hassen Mohamed lauded the project saying, “This is one step to defeating climate change.”
This story was written by the IOM Migration, Environment and Climate Change (MECC) team in the Regional Office for East and Horn of Africa: Lisa Lim Ah Ken and Ivyne Mabaso, with support from the IOM Ethiopia country office and MECC Headquarters in Geneva.