A young man tends to his herd of sheep. Livestock plays a crucial part in the livelihoods of Mauritanians, and a Counterpart program aims to keep flocks healthy through the current drought. © Alisha Rodriquez/Counterpart International

By Alisha Rodriquez, Senior Program Development Officer

On a drive across drought-stricken regions of Mauritania, the desert is punctuated by slowly decaying animal carcasses among the thorn trees and leafless baobabs. Each carcass represents a piece of the calamity for rural Mauritanian communities, which depend on livestock to generate income.

Every year, men and boys take herds of goats, sheep and cattle on long migrations, as far as neighboring Mali and Senegal, in search of pasture and water.

Water shortage tests animal health

The current drought – Mauritania’s worst in 15 years – has contributed to a food crisis across the Sahel region of West Africa, putting more than 15 million people at risk. The U.N. Children’s Fund says it has raised only 38 percent of what it needs to address hunger in the region.

With less water, animals are at increased risk of disease and death. Dehydration and lack of forage are constant concerns. Animals in stressed conditions are more susceptible to disease. Water sources become increasingly contaminated through overuse, and the convergence of large herds around these watering holes creates easy opportunities for large-scale disease transmission.

For poor Mauritanian communities, the consequences of drought and animal disease can be tragic. Livestock provide a key source of income and food throughout the year, particularly when insufficient rainfall compromises production of staple food crops. In these water-scarce periods, successfully maintaining the herd is critical to a family’s survival.

When the health of their livestock is compromised by drought, many pastoralists resort to a process known as destocking – selling a significant portion of the herd to maintain the health of the remaining animals. This can help to reduce disease and dedicate scarce food and water resources to the livestock they retain, but at a cost: Destocking periods mean reduced profits as increased supply drives animal prices down.

The drought has brought other costs. The early onset of herd migration in search of food and water takes men and boys away from their normal seasonal income-generating activities such as farming and trading, and animal deaths reduce earnings even further.

Families suffer. Reduced income means less food for children, the inability to buy medicines or send sick family members for treatment, and the sale of such vital household assets as farm equipment and tools. As a result, malnutrition rates among children and pregnant women rise, communities’ overall health deteriorates, and the next year’s earning ability is compromised.

That’s where Counterpart International comes in.

Through its programs in Mauritania, Counterpart works with pastoralists to promote improved animal health, especially during critical water shortages like the current drought. Counterpart has constructed five animal health parks – fenced facilities where herders can bring their livestock for vaccinations.

Partnering with government to reach more

Counterpart works in coordination with the Mauritanian Ministry of Rural Development, which provides inexpensive vaccines and the services of 57 government livestock extension agents, to offer animal health fairs. Simple vaccination campaigns protect livestock from disease, and improved information and training about good animal health practices help empower pastoralists to manage herds effectively.

Before this year’s drought, Counterpart worked with the Ministry of Rural Development to offer vaccination campaigns that protected more than 200,000 animals in the Assaba and Hodh el-Gharbi regions from disease. Although Mauritania’s weather conditions may always present a challenge for herders, improved access to vaccinations and animal health services can help them better overcome these challenges and maintain vital sources of income for their families.