R’KIZ, Mauritania (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Chronic fatigue, weight loss and lingering sadness. Mohammed Elmouved does not need a doctor to diagnose his symptoms.
“It’s my animals,” said the livestock owner, at a dusty herders’ camp in R’Kiz, on the edge of the Mauritanian desert.
“They’ve barely had anything to eat or drink in days, so the weakest ones are dying ... Whatever they feel, I feel.”
His emaciated goats wobble around a trough half-filled with water, while other smaller bleating competitors try to push to the front for a drink themselves.
With his goats, cows and camels, Elmouved is crossing stretches of arid land in southern Mauritania to reach Senegal, 40 km (25 miles) away on Africa’s west coast, where he plans to sell part of his herd to buy feed for his stronger animals.
“There are no trees, no pastures here but I think I will have more luck on the other side of the (Senegal) river,” said the herder, aged in his fifties and swathed in a long bright blue and gold robe.
For centuries, nomadic herders in Mauritania and across the Sahel, a vast dry region in northwestern Africa, have moved hundreds of miles every year to find pasture for their herds.
But worsening drought is depleting traditional grazing areas, forcing pastoralists from Mauritania - a country already nearly three-quarters desert or semi-desert - to travel ever longer distances into neighboring Mali and Senegal to find fodder and water.
This is causing conflict with farmers along the way - with herds damaging fields and cattle raiders stealing animals - and threatening an age-old way of life as rising poverty forces more herders to sell up and move to cities.
However an innovative project is underway to protect the livestock sector that accounts for 13 percent of the nation’s economy and provides 75 percent of the population with income, according to United Nations data.
A team of charities, researchers and local authorities are setting up pastoralist corridors to ensure herders can safely take livestock across national boundaries in Africa’s Sahel.
Key to the success of such corridors is persuading those living along the way that herders bring more benefits than threats.
“If a pastoralist does not move, he dies,” said El Hacen Ould Taleb, head of Groupement National des Associations Pastorales (GNAP), a Mauritanian charity working with pastoralists.
“His animals will become ill or die due to the lack of food and water, and he won’t be able to feed his family,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation from his office in Nouakchott, Mauritania’s capital.
But finding precious pasture is tricky when you “have no idea where to start” or when mayors do not allow you to pass through their villages, said Ould Taleb.
His organization mapped strategic routes along Mauritania’s southern border with Senegal, based on the location of water points, grazing areas and markets where pastoralists can sell their animals and produce.
It then lobbied local authorities to secure the routes and give pastoralists and their herds the right to pass through.
The initiative, led by French charity Acting for Life, is part of the Building Resilience and Adaptation to Climate Extremes and Disasters (BRACED) program, funded by the UK Department for International Development (DFID).
“Pastoralism accounts for over 10 percent of the country’s GDP,” said Kane Aliou Hamadi, a GNAP project coordinator who manages the BRACED program in Mauritania.
“Helping pastoralists get what they need is not just the right thing to do, it’s smart.”
Herder Ahmed Haibala said knowing where to find resources is critical, having spent three months roaming Mauritania’s southern Gorgol region in search of water for his ailing goats and other animals.
His 10-square-metre tent is as organized as it is busy, with metal teapots dangling from a black cauldron, bags of sugar and rice stacked up, straw mats rolled up in a corner.
“It’s so I can pack up and leave easily,” said Haibala, who has spent his life herding animals.
Every morning he sets off on a rented horse cart looking for boreholes and – when he is lucky – brings back several containers’ worth of water to the campsite.
“My 70 animals are too weak to move so I can neither go home (to neighboring Brakna region) or travel to Senegal. I am stuck here,” he said, chewing a bit of tobacco.
A few meters outside his tent lies the carcass of a calf, half buried in sand.
Livestock herding is an ancient activity in West Africa’s Sahel, but herders have become increasingly vulnerable as climate change disrupts rain patterns in the region.
Erratic rainfall threatens the pastoralists’ traditional months-long seasonal migration to Mali and Senegal – known as transhumance – and their main source of income, experts say.
“Transhumance allows pastoralists to hit three birds with one stone: find pastures and water, sell their animals at the market and buy produce they need like cereal crops and wood,” Ould Taleb said.
But droughts have become so long they have forced some pastoralists to abandon their way of life entirely, he said.
“Many (pastoralists) had to abandon or sell their animals this year and move to slums near Nouakchott, taking up day jobs like road(side) sellers,” said the head of the pastoralist association.
Giving up the herd is the worst thing that can happen to a pastoralist, Hamadi said. Livestock is so important for herders that community life revolves around the animals.
“Weddings, for example, will only happen in the rainy season, when animals are healthy and well fed,” he explained.
“If the weather continues like this, pastoralism could disappear.”
One particularly troubling effect of worsening drought is increased conflict between herders and farmers over dwindling water and food, local people say.
The longer the drought, the more conflict arises, said Abdellahy Alwa Abdullah, a village official in R’Kiz.
“Everyone is looking for the same thing – pastures and water,” he explained over lunch, as he molded a handful of rice mixed with cooked lamb into a ball and popped it into his mouth.
“And the route (from R’Kiz) to the Senegal river is full of rice fields, so it’s hard for herds to avoid stepping on them.”
When that happens, “farmers and herders sometimes fight, with knives, axes, their bare hands, whatever they can find”, the official added.
Elmouved said there are farmers and fields everywhere in the area so problems are inevitable.
“Earlier this year, two of my cows crossed into a farmer’s rice field,” he said. “We settled the matter with money but others aren’t so lucky.”
The BRACED program - which helps to fund climate change reporting at the Thomson Reuters Foundation - has set up local committees of pastoralists, farmers and officials to resolve conflicts in the Trarza region, near the Senegalese border.
When a pastoralist and a farmer find themselves in a dispute, the committee assesses the damage and decides on a fine for the guilty party – most often the pastoralist who has trespassed on farming land, said Alwa Abdullah, who heads the conflict committee for R’Kiz village.
Each village has an animal pound where a herder’s livestock is “held hostage” until he has paid the agreed fine to the farmer, he added.
“So the pastoralist always pays because he wants his animals back,” Alwa Abdullah said.
His committee has only had to settle seven disputes since the beginning of the year, he said, as “the prospect of a fine dissuades people from trespassing”.
But more important than solving conflict is preventing it, said Hamadi - and that requires pastoralists having a safer and easier route to travel.
“To find resources, herders need to be able to freely cross borders (to Senegal and Mali) but local authorities rarely let them through,” he said.
That is because farmers typically see pastoralists as thieves who steal food and destroy pastures, said Catherine Simonet, a research fellow at the Overseas Development Institute (ODI), a London-based think tank.
“As they are always on the move and don’t necessarily own land they are hard to tax, so governments don’t like them much either,” she added.
Following successful experiences in Mali, Niger and Burkina Faso, the BRACED project identified and negotiated with authorities several corridors in Mauritania’s Trarza region for pastoralists to travel on their way to Senegal.
The routes - carefully chosen to avoid farming areas - opened in January and are about 50 km long, with white and red poles posted 200 meters apart to mark the path.
Now pastoralists “not only now know where to go, they do so at no cost and without crossing into farmers’ fields”, Hamadi said.
Habib Sidi, a cattle owner who also grows rice and vegetables in Trarza, said the markings have made driving his animals to grass much easier.
“Before I mostly guessed where I was going, and it was often too late to prevent my cows from stepping over a farmer’s field,” he said, bending to water a batch of yellowing cabbages.
“Now I just follow the signs, and farmers – myself included – are more relaxed because they feel their fields are protected.”
So far the project has secured over 2,500 km of corridors across the Sahel, Hamadi said.
The corridors follow newly-built solar-powered wells, which herders can use for a fee of 30 ouguiya ($0.08) per animal. They also pass livestock markets, where pastoralists can sell their cattle and buy food or medication for their remaining animals.
Hamadi said highlighting the financial returns of pastoralism - particularly for communities the herders pass through - was key to getting mayors on board with the corridor project.
“We had to speak their language (and say) giving pastoralists access to your markets ensures a thriving local economy, not just for meat but animal-derived produce like milk and leather,” he said.
Mayors were urged to “think of (pastoralists) as businessmen, not thieves”, he added.
Mohamed Salem, the livestock ministry’s director for the Gorgol region, agreed that making herding work in an era of climate change is crucial.
“Pastoralism is what holds Mauritania’s economy together,” he explained.
“It’s thanks to livestock that we are self-sufficient in meat – you won’t find a single gram of red meat in the country that has been imported.”
Public perceptions of pastoralists are improving, he said. Now “we are on everyone’s map” and Mauritania has its own livestock ministry, established in 2014.
For Vatma Vall Mint Soueina, Mauritania’s Minister of Livestock, securing safe passage for pastoralists is just the first step to make herding thrive in tougher climatic conditions.
“Mobility on its own is not enough. Our country lacks the infrastructure and services to support pastoralists,” she said.
To remedy this the BRACED program is equipping newly established livestock corridors with animal clinics and fodder sales points, which herders can access for a small fee, Hamadi said.
Elmouved, who is now looking to buy drugs for his sick animals, said “you can have all the animals in the world but if they’re too skinny, they won’t fetch anything at the market”.
Herders are gaining recognition in Mauritania but one group remains largely overlooked: pastoralist women.
Transhumance remains predominantly a male activity, with women typically staying at home to manage harvests, any remaining animals and finances, said Aminetou Mint Maouloud, who set up the country’s first association of women herders in 2014.
Women and children used to join men on their travels, according to local people, but as the trips with the herds got longer and riskier they were told to stay at home.
While that means more responsibilities for women in the village, it does not always translate into more power as far as men are concerned, Maouloud said at a meeting with a dozen pastoralist women in Nouakchott.
“For example, women are barely ever consulted on strategic matters such as what to do with the family herd or where to go looking for pastures,” said Maouloud, sitting behind a large desk.
To change that, her association has elected a council of eight women from villages around the country to lobby the government on pastoralism issues.
But Maouloud said it would take time to change views.
Sidi, the cattle owner and farmer from Trarza, said he cannot imagine women joining him when he moves his herds.
“They don’t understand animals,” he said, shaking his head. “I’m not against them joining in principle, but not my wife.”
Mouna Mokhtar, a pastoralist from R’Kiz whose husband and cattle have been gone for six months, said she feels ready to lead a herd herself.
“But I don’t think (my husband) would let me because he negotiates better prices for our animals at the market,” she explained, as she cut chunks of meat in a metal bowl.
Instead, she set up a vegetable cooperative in 2013 with 70 women from nearby villages. Now they pool their rice, onion and tomato harvests and sell them to wholesale buyers.
They share the profits – about 5,000 ouguiya ($14) per woman per month – and spend the surplus on drought-resistant seeds.
Although the women’s husbands support the initiative, Mokhtar said, she is not counting too much on male support.
“It’s great that they’re encouraging us but what we need is money,” she said, surrounded by a group of women. “If they really wanted our help, they would let us travel with them.”
Reporting by Zoe Tabary @zoetabary, Editing by Laurie Goering and Belinda Goldsmith; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit news.trust.org