Issue 57 - Article 4

Pastoralism in the new borderlands: a humanitarian livelihoods crisis

May 16, 2013
Helen Young and Zoe Cormack
Cattle herders in Unity State

In July 2011 an international border was created between Sudan and the new state of South Sudan. This new border cuts through a socially and economically active region and some of the most fertile land in Sudan. The adjacent area is home to more than 25% (12 million) of the combined total population of Sudan and South Sudan. It is in every sense a pastoralist border. It runs through grazing lands containing important migration routes, especially for northern pastoralist groups, enabling them to access dry season pastures in the south for up to five months of the year.

The border region has been dubbed ‘the new South’ – part of a growing zone of conflict and insecurity that has brought Sudan and South Sudan to the brink of war. The border remains undemarcated and a fragile peace in the disputed border region of Abyei is being overseen by a 4,000-strong UN force. Beyond Abyei, in the border states of South Kordofan and Blue Nile, conflict between the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM)-North and the Sudan Armed Forces has displaced hundreds of thousands of people. Negotiations are complicated by oil, with major pipelines running through the border areas. Although an agreement in September 2012 promised security, demarcation, economic and trade deals and citizenship rights for border communities, at the time of writing little has changed on the ground, and attacks on civilians near the border have continued. In 2013, the UN is planning to assist more than 700,000 people affected by fighting in South Kordofan and Blue Nile. The scale of this crisis is potentially vast, affecting livestock producers right along the 2,100km border from Darfur in the west to Blue Nile State in the east.

Conflict and insecurity in the border region have significantly disrupted livestock migratory routes. The southwards cross-border migrations of cattle pastoralists are part of an annual movement adapted to seasonal and highly variable rainfall. To the north, on the desert’s edge, annual rainfall is less than 150mm, gradually increasing southwards up to 600mm. During the rainy season livestock are kept further north where conditions are more conducive to health and breeding. Cattle then move southwards during the dry season as they become increasingly reliant on permanent water sources. These seasonal migrations connect ecologically diverse regions and economies, so what happens in the borderlands has a knock-on effect further north, and vice-versa.

Invisible needs

The humanitarian needs of pastoralists are often invisible to humanitarian organisations until the loss of their herds is so acute that it leads to drop-out and destitution. See Livestock Emergency Guidelines and Standards (LEGS) (Rugby: Practical Action Publishing, 2009).  Pastoralists are hard to reach, and their mobility can make it difficult for humanitarians to work with them. There is a dearth of humanitarian indicators on pastoralists because their scattered distribution makes them difficult to sample, and when data is collected it is usually aggregated with other population data and thus indistinguishable. Even if they are not technically excluded by humanitarian action, by default their specific needs as pastoralists might go unrecognised. There is a growing body of best practice in supporting livestock-based livelihoods in emergencies,[2] and unique experience in Sudan of supporting pastoralist livestock mobility, for example by supporting local negotiations to agree on the course of stock routes, the actual physical demarcation and mapping of stock routes and support for water catchments and veterinary services. When such initiatives also target farmers, they become a contact point between groups. In Darfur one agency has helped with the transport of animals to allow them to pass through insecure sections of livestock corridors. This experience is patchy, and more needs to be done in terms of better assessments and monitoring and addressing pastoralists’ humanitarian needs.

Implications for pastoralist livelihoods

The border crisis has had serious implications for pastoralist livelihoods. Of pressing concern are the humanitarian implications for cross-border livestock mobility in light of the deteriorating security conditions in the border areas of South Kordofan, East Darfur and Blue Nile State. The hot dry season, from May up to the beginning of the rains, is the most challenging time for pastoralists, who need to access permanent water and valuable dry season pastures. Insecurity and conflict have hindered the migration of cattle south, resulting in concentrations of livestock in border states and in some states to the north. Some cattle producers in North Kordofan are not moving south, but are instead restricting their migratory patterns within the state. S. Krätli et al., Standing Wealth: Pastoralist Livestock Production and Local Livelihoods in Sudan (Khartoum: Feinstein International Center, Tufts University United Nations Environment Programme, SOS Sahel Sudan, forthcoming).  This increases the risk of conflict between farmers and cattle herders as they compete over access to pastures, crop residues and water. In Blue Nile State the local authorities are reporting considerable pressure on water and pasture resources, a direct result of increasing concentrations of livestock, and cattle have reportedly destroyed crops in parts of Dilling and Kadugli localities in South Kordofan.

Poor relations between northern pastoralists and Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) troops on the border are another serious concern. During the long civil war, the Sudanese government recruited pastoralists as progovernment militia, and bitterness persists. The Misseriyas’ annual dry season migration alone takes some 50,000 herders and 1.2 million cattle from South Kordofan as far as Unity and Warrap states in South Sudan. J. Craze, Living the Line: Life along the Sudan–South Sudan Border (Geneva: Small Arms Survey, forthcoming).  However, in the 2013 dry season they were denied entry into Warrap State. A recent FEWSNet (2013) report expressed concern for ‘over 10 million heads of Rizeiqat cattle’ needing to cross the border into South Sudan to access water and grazing during the dry season. FEWSNet, Sudan Food Security Outlook. January to June 2013, 2013, p. 3.

Many pastoralists depend on local relationships to negotiate access to pastures in the south. There are also local agreements between groups; for example, in 2011 Hawazma pastoralists and an SPLM-North committee agreed commitments to peaceful coexistence, an end to livestock looting, a joint mechanism to recover looted livestock, open markets and access to pastures in SPLMN- controlled areas. ICG, ‘Sudan’s Spreading Conflict (I): War in South’, Africa Report No 198, International Crisis Group, 2013.  However, ongoing insecurity will put increasing pressure on these arrangements. Recent reports of the expulsion of northern pastoralists from South Sudan to Darfur, Sennar and Blue Nile states are of concern.

The Federal and State Ministries of Animal Resources recognise the problems facing pastoralists and are aware of increasing concentrations of livestock and pressure on water and pasture. In Blue Nile State there are government plans to protect pastures for livestock and migratory routes by releasing agricultural land for grazing. G. Gebru et al., Livestock, Livelihoods and Disasters. Part 2 Case Studies from Kassala, Blue Nile and North Darfur State, Sudan. (Medford, MA: Tufts University, forthcoming).  This year’s harvest is reportedly extremely good, which should increase the availability of crop residues for use by livestock, though labour shortages in some areas, caused by the decreased flow of migrating agricultural labourers from the South, may reduce the amount harvested.

Tensions also affect the informal trade in livestock and commodities between South Sudan and Sudan, though the precise impact on the cross-border economy, markets and trade, and how this is controlled and managed, is poorly understood. According to a recent FEWSNet report, conflict-affected households in South Kordofan face a lack of access to markets and sharp price increases; prices in SPLM-N-controlled areas are 5–10 times higher than they are in areas controlled by the Sudanese government. G. Gebru et al., Livestock, Livelihoods and Disasters. Part 2 Case Studies from Kassala, Blue Nile and North Darfur State, Sudan. (Medford, MA: Tufts University, forthcoming).

International responses

young-box-1Lack of access and insecurity remain the two major challenges to undertaking field assessments and delivering assistance. There is a dearth of information about the current situation of pastoralists and their southward migrations. Several organisations have planned assessments in South Kordofan, but these have stalled due to conflict and restricted access. At the time of writing access to Blue Nile State had improved, and two joint interagency humanitarian missions have visited Ed Damazine, Geissan and Kurmuk localities. Many internationally supported initiatives have focused on promoting dialogue on cross-border issues (see Box 1), but these talks have limitations given the difficulties involved in ensuring that all parties are present, solutions are workable and resolutions maintained.

Recent attention to people affected by war in South Kordofan and Blue Nile is positive. However, funding trends indicate that donor support to Sudan is waning: only 53% of the $1 billion Consolidated Appeal (CAP) was met in 2012, a sharp drop from 2011 (partly blamed on poor humanitarian access). The shortfall in funding to the UN Workplan in Sudan contrasts with increased flows to South Sudan. There are, though, positive developments. For the first time, the UN Workplan in Sudan for 2013 includes the category of ‘pastoralists/nomads’, who comprise approximately 10% of the 5.1m caseload. United Nations, Sudan United Nations and Partners 2013 Workplan, 2013, pp. 55, 37.  The Workplan specifically mentions the ‘sustained needs among pastoralist communities’, which require ‘continued monitoring of the humanitarian situation, with a focus on livelihoods, livestock and food’. While this attention is welcome, it is not clear how pastoralists’ needs will be monitored. Tufts, UNEP Sudan and partners are currently piloting longitudinal monitoring of livestock mobility and pastoralist decision-making, using interviews and GPS tracking.


The new border between Sudan and South Sudan runs through a large number of pastoral migration routes. The current heightened awareness of cross-border issues for pastoralists is recent, and it will be important to tailor any humanitarian action to their unique livelihood needs, followed by analysis of what works, what has most potential and why. Potential actions include releasing land for livestock migration and grazing, storage of crop residues as dry season feed resources, construction of new water points and rehabilitation of old ones and the use of transportable water bladder tanks to allow access to grazing areas that are currently unused because of lack of water.

Continued instability and tensions along the border area, as well as ongoing conflict between the SPLMN and the SAF in Blue Nile and South Kordofan, are affecting pastoralists’ access to the rangelands they need to sustain their livelihoods. This in turn can only increase and entrench conflict in the region. There can be no sustainable political solution to the conflict between Sudan and South Sudan without accommodating a viable future for pastoralists.

Helen Young leads the Darfur Livelihoods Program at the Feinstein International Center, Tufts University. Zoe Cormack is a PhD student at Durham University.


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