Droughts, livelihoods, and human migration in northern Ethiopia

  • Kathleen HermansEmail author
  • Lisa Garbe
Original Article


Our study examines the effects of drought on livelihoods and human migration in the rural highlands of northern Ethiopia, one of the most affected regions during the 2015 drought. We conducted a household survey contextualized by focus group discussions in two rural sending areas. Drought intensity was similar in both areas, but drought impacts and farmer’s response strategies differed. Overall, we observed significant strategy changes, including a drastic shift from subsistence crop production to livestock sale among farmers being dependent on the March–June rainfall (belg season). Our results suggest that drought increases mobility, primarily through triggering short-term migration to closer destinations to cover immediate needs like food shortages. Four out of ten households in both regions engaged in migration. Nonetheless, migration tends to be context specific with respect to barriers and opportunities for participation, with distance, duration, and perceptions of migration as well as the underlying motives being region-specific. We conclude that understanding livelihood strategy changes requires an embedding in a larger context rather than focusing on one particular driver. Migration—one important livelihood strategy in northern Ethiopia—is the result of a complex interplay of factors, drought perhaps being only one of them. Based on our finding, we reason the decision to migrate is strongly moderated by the drought rather than it is directly driven by it.


Drought Livelihoods Migration Ethiopia 



We particularly thank Amare Haileslassie from the International Water Management Institute (IMWI) for supporting the preparation of the field research and Friedrich Boeing from UFZ for assisting the rainfall data analysis.

Funding information

KH gratefully acknowledges the funding partners that have supported this research including the funding received through a VENI grant from the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO) and the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) within the project MigSoKo (01UU1606).

Supplementary material

10113_2019_1473_MOESM1_ESM.docx (15 kb)
ESM 1 (DOCX 15 kb)
10113_2019_1473_MOESM2_ESM.docx (17 kb)
ESM 2 (DOCX 17 kb)


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag GmbH Germany, part of Springer Nature 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department Computational Landscape EcologyHelmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ)LeipzigGermany
  2. 2.Laboratory of Geo-information Science and Remote SensingWageningen UniversityWageningenThe Netherlands
  3. 3.School of Economics and Political Science (SEPS)University of St. Gallen (HSG)St. GallenSwitzerland

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