Inter Press Service
Inside a health clinic run by the Catholic Daughters of Saint Anne, a nurse wraps a special tape measure around the upper arm of 2-year-old Rodas cradled in her mother’s arms. The tape reads yellow, meaning “moderately” malnourished, according to the attending nurse.
Close by 17-year-old Milite describes not having enough food at her grandmother’s home where she lives, and the soldier father deserting them, she starts crying.
According to many dealing with Ethiopia’s current drought, by some estimates the worst in 50 years, it could be much worse than tears. But, so far, there are no scenes reminiscent of 1984, when Ethiopia’s most infamous drought contributed to more than one million Ethiopians dying.
The result is that assessing this drought, and the reaction to it by the Ethiopian government and international organizations, becomes a confusing mix of a partial success story on the part of the former, yet partial enough for imminent crisis, exacerbated by lack of reaction of the international world to remain a distinct possibility.
“There’s confusion of information—information got to the world’s media late,” says Sebhatu Seyoum, social and development coordinator for the Adigrat Diocesan Catholic Secretariat (ADCS), a non-profit faith-based welfare organisation trying to raise funds to assist the likes of the Idaga Hamus clinic in Ethiopia’s most northern Tigray region. “People are not starving but they’re close to starving. We need to address this moment right now, before it gets worse.”
Tigray—a land of cliffs, gorges and flat-topped mesas beneath bright light-blue skies—has always suffered more erratic rainy seasons than the central Ethiopian highlands to the south, where the typical 3-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—ocean warming trend El Niño is causing unusually heavy rains in some parts of the world and drought elsewhere.
Neighbouring Somalia has about 3 million people hit by crop failures and food shortages; Central America has about 3.5 million people; in Pacific nations about 4 million people may go without food or drinking water, according to the United Nations.
Crop production in the likes of Tigray and Afar has dropped by 50 to 90 per cent 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 itself, employing a sophisticated food security network developed over decades since images of the 1984 famine came to stigmatise Ethiopia.
The Productive Safety Net Program (PSNP) is a welfare-for-work initiative enabling about 6 million people to work on public infrastructure projects in return for food or cash. In addition, there’s a national food reserve and early warning systems throughout woredas, local administrative organisations.
The country’s ability and means for providing emergency relief have 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, Ethiopia is by comparison a politically and economically much more stable country, capable of self-help and robust action.
But proactive internal efforts hit a stumbling block as the drought took effect: estimated numbers of those effected gauged in June then doubled to around 8.2 million by October. Now Ethiopia is asking for help.
“We had one cow but had to sell that for food. Other people’s animals have lost so much body weight they can’t be sold,” says 80-year-old farmer Berhe Kahsay during afternoon coffee at his home in Awo, a small town reached through numerous military checkpoints due to proximity to the Eritrean border. “This kind of drought is due to the climate, and it’s becoming worse due to climate change. We hope God will bless us with positive change.”
If not, Ethiopia is competing for international funds with other grave humanitarian crises, such as Syria, Yemen and the migrant emergency; added to which the international donor system’s bureaucratic cogs 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 sooner while trying to maintain the narrative of Ethiopia’s great economic renaissance, achieving about an annual 10 per cent growth for the last decade.
Then there’s arguably the greatest hurdle: many people in the west are simply bored of hearing about another Ethiopian drought, even though this one could have strategic impact on Ethiopia’s long term prospects beyond obvious immediate humanitarian needs.
Aid agencies warn significant gains made over the years in food security, education and health are now in jeopardy in parts of Ethiopia. “Consequences could ripple through generations,” says the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund, (UNICEF).
To the east of Tigray is its even more arid regionally neighbour: the Afar, famous for its Danakil depression—the hottest place on earth.
“This area is normally drought effected, so the life of the community depends on the government and NGOs,” says 40-year-old Dawit Hegos, a schoolteacher in the small Afar town of Mawo. “This drought is a big problem. It’s unreasonable to expect the government to do everything; other countries with crises need help—it’s not just Ethiopia.”
A couple of kilometres from the school is a dam built by ADCS with foreign funds in 2012, creating a small reservoir for the surrounding area’s livestock.
“Before the dam we had no access to water and had to take cattle far away into the hills to try find rivers,” says Hussein Esmael, a member of the local militia, his AK-47 perched on a shoulder. “Now it’s needed even more as animals don’t have strength to go long distances to find water.”
From many of those living in Tigray and Afar comes a common and ominous refrain: “The animals die first.” Those working for NGOs now scrabbling for funds point out that historically after a drought the situation gets worse from January onwards, 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 some a meal consists of coffee and bread, or injera—a grey spongy pancake-shaped bread—with a little salt, the usual accompanying vegetables and meat sauces absent.
“There are a lot of mothers coming to us saying, ‘I have nothing in my breast, give me something for my baby,’” says 28-year-old Solomon Sibhat, a clinical nurse at a health center in the small Tigray town of Alitena. “It has got worse. But we have nothing to help. We say we are sorry.”
Foreign financial assistance is arriving, totalling about 167 million dollars so far, and combined with the Ethiopian government committing an unprecedented 192 million dollars to help prevent deaths from the drought.
But the overall emergency response could cost 1.4 billion dollars, according to aid agencies, especially if El Niño quashes 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.
Earlier this January, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, FAO, released a 50 million dollar emergency response plan to protect livestock and rebuild crop production.
The plan aims to help 1.8 million farmers and livestock keepers in 2016 close food gaps and restore agricultural production and incomes. Its first critical phase will focus on the period between January and June—the main planting and cropping season—involving “a mix of emergency seed distribution, small-scale irrigation projects, and backyard gardening initiatives targeted at empowering women’s groups with tools, knowledge and access to micro loans.”
But current estimates of those who may need help may again prove an underestimate if the current trend of aid agency press releases with ever-increasing numbers is anything to go by.
“We really feel guilty when we see what we are supposed to do but can’t because of lack of resources and capabilities,” says Sister Azalech, director of the clinic at Idaga Hamus.
When asked what needs to happen, among the nun’s reply in Tigrinya one word stands out clearly: “Geunzeb.” Money.