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In pictures: Fears mount over Ethiopia’s overlooked drought

© James Jeffrey | Young girls outside the village of Mawo in Ethiopia’s Afar region return home after filling their water containers.

Text by James JEFFREY , in Afar and Tigray regions, Ethiopia

Latest update : 2016-02-05

Ethiopia’s government has mitigated much of the fallout of the country's worst drought for decades — but on closer inspection the situation on the ground remains precarious.

Cattle plod down a dusty hillside to a small reservoir behind a stone dam before dipping heads in unison to quench their thirst. Shortly after, a herd of goats shepherded by a young girl joins them outside the small village of Mawo in the arid Afar region of northeast Ethiopia.

“Before the dam we had no access to water and had to take cattle far away into the hills to try find rivers,” Hussein Esmael, a member of the local militia, said of the dam built with foreign funds. “Now it’s needed more than ever as animals don’t have the strength to go long distances to find water.”

Ethiopia’s current drought may be the worst the country has seen in 50 years, according to some estimates. But, so far, there are no scenes reminiscent of 1984, when drought contributed to more than a million Ethiopians dying.

The problem with comparing any drought to the devastating 1984 disaster is that it risks misinterpreting different circumstances, while hampering an effective analysis and reaction. Certainly the response by the Ethiopian government this time constitutes a partial success story. But the reaction of the international community – or lack thereof – represents a partial failure, one that still runs the risk of plunging this drought-prone African nation into yet another disaster.

“The drought is very severe and though it’s been in the media, there hasn’t been enough practical support,” said Mohammed Omar, head of the Haddo tribe in the Afar. “Most people here are nomadic pastoralists [raise livestock], so health in rural areas is affected most.”

Despite the rapidly changing skylines of Ethiopia’s modernising cities, about 80 percent of its population still subsist on rain-dependant agriculture.


El Niño troublemaker

Afar and the neighbouring western region of Tigray — a land of cliffs, gorges and flat-topped mesas beneath bright blue skies — have always suffered more erratic rainy seasons than the central Ethiopian highlands to the south, where the typical three-month-long rainy season contributes to Ethiopia’s continental status as the water tower of Africa. 

But the severity of this drought stems from events beyond Ethiopia’s control or prediction — El Niño [band of warm ocean water] is causing unusually heavy rains in some parts of the world and drought elsewhere. In neighbouring Somalia, about three million people have been affected by crop failures and food shortages.

Crop production in regions such as Afar and Tigray has dropped by 50 to 90 percent in some parts and failed completely in others. Hundreds of thousands of livestock are estimated to have already been lost.

Initially, Ethiopia tried what many in the West complain developing countries don’t do enough of: tackling the situation at the route. Ethiopia employed a sophisticated food security network developed over the decades since the images of the 1984 famine came to typify the country.

The Productive Safety Net Program (PSNP) is a welfare-for-work initiative enabling about six million people to work on public infrastructure projects in return for food or cash. In addition, there are national food reserves and early warning systems throughout the woredas [local administrative districts].

The country’s ability to provide emergency relief has changed beyond recognition since 1984. Added to which, circumstances accompanying this drought are entirely different: the 1984 famine was also a result of civil war in the north.

Today’s Ethiopia by comparison is a much more politically and economically stable country, capable of self-help and robust action — but there are always limits.

Overwhelming numbers

Proactive internal efforts began to strain as the drought took hold: the number of people affected aproximately doubled from June to October 2015, to around 8.2 million. As a result, Ethiopia is now asking for help.

“This area is normally drought affected, so the life of the community depends on the government and NGOs,” said 40-year-old Dawit Hegos, a schoolteacher in Mawo. “It’s unreasonable to expect the government to do everything; other countries with crises need help — it’s not just Ethiopia.”

Herein lies a major challenge: Ethiopia is competing for international funds with other grave humanitarian crises, such as Syria, Yemen and the migrant crisis. The international donor system’s bureaucratic cogs also started turning late after the government’s initial go-it-alone efforts.

The government has since been criticised for delaying and not admitting the severity of the crisis while trying to maintain the narrative of Ethiopia’s great economic renaissance, achieving approximately 10 percent annual growth for the past decade.

Then there’s arguably the greatest hurdle: many people in the West simply have donor fatigue when it comes to Ethiopia, even though this crisis could have a strategic impact on the country's long-term prospects beyond obvious immediate humanitarian needs.

Aid agencies warn that the significant gains made over the past few years in food security, education and health are now in jeopardy in parts of Ethiopia.

“Consequences could ripple through generations,” said the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund in a statement.

Tipping point

From many of those living in Afar and Tigray comes a common and ominous refrain: “The animals die first.”

Aid workers scrambling for funds note that historically after a drought the situation gets worse after January, when people have used up all their reserve food stocks or what little they managed to harvest.

Already people are cutting back on food, hence for those such as 80-year-old farmer Berhe Kahsay at his home in Awo, a small town in Tigray right by the border with Eritrea, a meal consists of coffee and bread, or injera — a spongy pancake-shaped bread — with a little salt and none of the the usual accompanying vegetables and meat sauces.

“There are a lot of mothers coming to us saying, ‘I have no breast milk, please give me something for my baby,’” said 28-year-old Solomon Sibhat, a clinical nurse at a health center in the small town of Alitena not far from Awo. “It has got worse. But we have nothing to give.”

Foreign financial assistance is finally arriving, totalling about $167 million so far, and bolstered by the Ethiopian government committing an unprecedented $192 million to help prevent deaths from the drought.

But the overall emergency response could cost $1.4 billion, according to aid agencies, especially if El Niño impacts Ethiopia’s next rainy season.

The United Nations estimates such a situation could result in more than 15 million Ethiopians suffering food shortages, acute malnutrition or worse by mid-2016 unless donations increase.

“There are no NGOs in my area,” Mohammed said. “We’ll have to see what happens.”

Date created : 2016-02-04

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