Ethiopia drought: on the edge of a crisis

Addis Ababa, Ethiopia (NI) – ‘Lower quality means less profit,’ Roba Adola tells me, flicking through a thin wad of well-thumbed notes and gesturing at the arid Ethiopian savannah around us.

‘Foot and mouth disease has badly affected our livestock, driving down our income. This year, I made 6,000 birr [$290] less per camel than I did last year.’

Behind us, traders jostle brokers, darting between groups to identify their next purchase and haggling to secure a profitable sale. Markets such as these used to be big business in this part of Ethiopia.

The Borena, an agro-pastoralist tribe based in and around the town of Yabelo in the south of the country, rely heavily on the sale of their livestock to support their families. The onset of diseases such as foot and mouth, coupled with the drought, mean traders are obliged to sell at lower cost, forcing families into deeper poverty.

Ethiopia’s most severe drought for 30 years is currently sweeping across the country. It has triggered prolonged dry spells, delaying the much sought-after rains that allow farmers to harvest their crops and leaving over 10 million people in immediate need of aid assistance.

‘We have to find a way to ration our animal feed during periods of drought,’ says Roba. ‘Managing our natural resources would help to prevent famine, like the one we saw in the 1980s.’

Together with Ethiopian colleagues from Christian Aid, I visit Adegalchat, a kebele – or village – two hours’ drive from the nearest town. Avocado trees and coffee plantations are dotted along the road while the sweet smell of wild strawberries drifts in through the car windows.

On arrival, we meet Sanou, the village chief. He invites us to join him in the shade under an acacia tree, gently nudging a donkey aside.

‘When drought comes, we all suffer the same. These are the only periods when everyone – no matter how wealthy or poor – feels the same impact,’ he explains.

We discuss the ways in which his community have adapted their practices to counter the effects of their changing climate.

‘No matter how well we try to adapt, the rains don’t come. Our land dries, our livestock starve and our children weaken.’

Later that day, Kula Taro Wariyo invites us to her home for a lunch of spiced rice. Twenty people from the village gather in her dark conical hut and tell us about the changes they have seen in their village in the past few years.

‘Even when the rain falls, it doesn’t bear any fruit. In the past, the rains were strong and the grass began to shoot up. Now, the ground dries immediately,’ Kula says, gesturing to the parched land outside her hut.

The following day, we drive out to Arero, 100 kilometres from Yabelo. I sit with a group of women and their babies and with beaming smiles they tell me my name means ‘Sugarcane’ in the local vernacular.

Image Source: British Red Cross. Flickr, Creative Commons 1984: food distribution organized by Ethiopian Red Cross volunteers. Between 1984 and 1985, the northern regions of Ethiopia suffered a dramatic famine. The estimated death toll of the famines was over one million.

Image Source: British Red Cross. Flickr, Creative Commons
1984: food distribution organized by Ethiopian Red Cross volunteers.
Between 1984 and 1985, the northern regions of Ethiopia suffered a dramatic famine. The estimated death toll of the famines was over one million.

Tume Yarco Deeda, 21, describes the effects drought has on women and girls: ‘We have to carry water, collect hay, prepare food for our family, look after our children – and that is only some of our tasks. Drought means we have to walk further to find food and water. Sometimes, we have to carry heavy jerry cans of water for hours at a time under the hot sun.’

I ask how they coped when they were pregnant with their children.

‘I know many women who have given birth on the way to get water. This is very dangerous for them.’

Drought has a severe and immediate impact on families such as these. Less trade means less money for food. No rain means longer journeys to find water, often on perilous routes. And no food or water means children are forced to leave school to help their mothers find these vital resources. Sometimes, the consequences are far worse.

Christian Aid has been working with a local partner organization, Hundee, to provide one nutritious school meal per day to over 4,000 children in Ethiopia’s Zuway Dugda district.

One pupil who has benefited from this emergency project is 15-year-old Marima Mohammed. ‘Drought has made our life miserable,’ she says.

‘As food is so scarce in my family, I skip dinner to let my younger sisters eat my share. Thanks to the school feeding programme, now I am regularly going to school and attending classes comfortably.’

Much more needs to be done, as millions of people survive each day on the edge of a humanitarian crisis. If we want to prevent history repeating itself, we need to act now, before it’s too late.

This report prepared by Nicola Kelly for new internationalist.