In rural Chad cattle are currency, the down-payment on ceremonies, a savings plan during sickness and emergency food in lean times. So the loss of an estimated one-third of the country's livestock to drought has been a disaster, with desperate pastoralists trying to make it until the next rains as best they can.
"I have been a herder for 30 years and I do not remember things ever being this bad - not even during the 1970s droughts," Al Hadj Ali Mbodou told IRIN at the weekly cattle market in Mao, 300km north of the capital, N'Djamena.
Of 100 cows he had in 2009, 70 have died from lack of water and food. "There used to be trees the animals could rest under; now there is no more shade ... I live from these animals," he said.
"Trees can mean life when you are in the desert - when they die, other parts of the desert follow," said Hassan Térap, Chad's environment minister. To hold back the advancing desert the government has begun planting a 40km belt of trees, starting from N'Djamena, which it intends extending into a 1,000km green barrier.
A government survey found that the 2009 drought shrivelled pasture, dried up water sources, and killed 780,000 cattle worth US$460 million. It also cut the cereal harvest by 34 percent compared to 2008, throwing two million people who would normally be living off the land into the "at-risk" category.
Photo: Phuong Tran/IRIN
|Herder Al Hadj Lamine Ali|
Al Hadj Abakar, a pastoralist from Bourni, 13km from Mao, said he had lost 80 of his 120 animals in the past year. "I am here [at the market] trying to sell two animals to buy food for my family and my remaining animals."
With the grazing land denuded, Al Hadj Lamine Ali's cattle have also become desperate from hunger. "They get sick from eating paper, plastic, and anything else they come across. Veterinarians do not make house visits, so they go untreated. We have seen animals dying and droughts before, but with rain the land recovers, and so do the animals. Not this time - no weeds, no water, no trees."
In the past year 74 of his 96 cows and 100 of his 150 goats had died; this year five of his animals spontaneously aborted their young, but in the same period last year he lost none.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organization is distributing 615 tons of animal feed to 45,000 animals. "Our animals have already been through one difficult year," Ali told IRIN in Mao. "If we do not have better rains this year, they are too weak to live."