Pastoralism is seen as a "backward" way of making a living in many areas of the Horn of Africa, but in a region plagued by extreme weather and climate shocks pastoralists have fared better than most farmers, an expert says.
"Pastoralists are probably the best of all people on the planet to respond to climate change," said Ian Scoones, an agricultural ecologist at the UK-based Institute of Development Studies who has worked on dryland agricultural in eastern and southern Africa.
Movement is a large part of the pastoralists' lifestyle, and an important factor in their ability to adapt to climate variation, he said in a telephone interview. Unlike crop farmers, pastoralists are able to move across large areas of land to find other sources of food and water once they've exhausted the supply in their current location.
The continual movement of herders around the Horn of Africa region amounts to a method of sustainable land use, as it allows time for the land to replenish its resources before the pastoralists and their herds return, Scoones said.
Pastoralists also have a history of employing innovative water capturing techniques - such as the use of plastic sheeting by herders in southern Ethiopia.
With climate variation becoming more extreme and competition for land and water growing, some governments in the region have tried to settle pastoralists and persuade them to become crop farmers. But Scoones' research suggests that promoting pastoralism should be an important focus in government climate adaptation strategies.
Crop farming in drought-hit areas must continue but governments should "complement it with more drought resilient livelihoods," and pastoralists would be great teachers in those efforts, he said.
Unfortunately, the livelihoods of many pastoralists are being hampered as competition for land grows. In Ethiopia and the Tana River delta in Kenya, pastoralists are losing the land they have always used to large-scale agricultural projects, many created as foreign companies or countries buy or lease African agricultural land for their own food or biofuel production.
"Across the Horn this is a growing phenomenon," Scoones said, noting that some land formerly available to pastoralists is also being taken for wildlife parks.
If available land is significantly reduced, pastoralists will have to return to a smaller set of grazing areas more often, which could lead to degradation as the areas have less time to recover between visits.
Land policy is crucial for the future of pastoralism, and governments should draft policy to ensure land is available for herders, he said.
Some African countries in the Sahel have taken steps in this direction by registering land to pastoralists. Ethiopia and Kenya are currently experimenting with such registration, he said.
If land registration becomes more widespread, pastoralists communities will be better equipped to resist land grabs, he said.
Katie Murray is an AlertNet Climate intern.