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Drought-plagued Ethiopia

Drought-plagued Ethiopia: the rains come too late

Dr Till Wahnbaeck, Welthungerhilfe CEO, reports from his visit to Ethiopia

The situation in Afar is alarming. Till Wahnbaeck visited local families. © Jens Grossmann
The situation in Afar is alarming. Till Wahnbaeck visited local families. © Jens Grossmann
Till Wahnbaeck talking to a pastoralist. © Jens Grossmann
Till Wahnbaeck talking to a pastoralist. © Jens Grossmann
School meals: children have to walk 1.5 hours for a warm meal. © Jens Grossmann
School meals: children have to walk 1.5 hours for a warm meal. © Jens Grossmann

(22 April 2016) I am in Ethiopia, in the Afar herding region in the country’s north. A great drought has been going on here for decades, but we are receiving conflicting reports on how bad the situation really is. Earlier in the week, it began to rain. My flight from Addis Abeba was cancelled last-minute due to flooding on the runway, leaving us with a good ten hours’ car ride to the north. Does this mean that the danger has passed? 

We pass flooded areas. “I have never seen anything like this. This is far too much rain for this season,” says Valerie Browning, an Australian who has lived in Ethiopia for over 30 years, is married to an Afar herder and founded the APDA aid organization, our regional project partner. A few kilometres further, the earth is bone dry again. We pass the Bargale Dam, built several years ago by the Welthungerhilfe. Many herders came here with their livestock, hoping to find water, but the dam was dry and the animals were too weak to make it back. Half of the herd died on the way home.

“The rain does help, but it is too late. Our animals are dead,” an Afar herder tells me in the town of Lii. Igahle Utban, 36 years old, has six children with whom he lives in a six square metre straw hut. Three years ago, he had 100 goats. Then 100 became 50, and today he has only five left. However, a family living on the milk and meat of its livestock needs at least 15 goats to survive. The herder is trying to get by with odd jobs, but even that is not enough. He is forced to rely on food aid.

The goats are no longer producing milk

Several hundred metres further, a group of young mothers is preparing porridge from corn and soy for the nomads’ travelling school. It is their way to ensure that the children keep attending: the prospect of food motivates them to walk for up to an hour and a half to get to school in the morning. The porridge is filling but far from nutritionally balanced. The remaining goats no longer produce milk and there are too few to slaughter. Carbohydrates and protein alone are not enough. Malnutrition hits young children particularly hard. They never manage to compensate for the developmental disadvantage, leaving their physical and mental development permanently impaired. These children survive, but that is not always the case. “Yes, I know of children that starved to death,” a tribal elder tells me, pointing at a hill. “The graves are back there.” Our partner organizations report hundreds of people starved to death in the past months.

It has not rained for two years, but this single crisis is not the real problem. The real problem is that climate change has resulted in diminishing harvest yields for years. “This is the worst situation I have ever experienced,” the tribal elder Mohamed Nasir told me, looking back on his 61 years of age. “The great crisis of 1984 was not this bad, because it was followed by a recovery period. Now, we have not had any recovery periods for some ten years.” When an unusually severe drought like this one sets in under such conditions, no one is left with the strength to resist.

We drive on. We stop at a small, nameless settlement and talk with twenty reserved women, surrounded by dozens of silent children. “We lost our pack animals because of the drought,” one of them tells me. “The other families followed the water. We were not able to; without pack animals, we are stuck here.” And: “Yes, our children are hungry. We sent thirty of them to the Semera hospital.” They are suffering from acute malnutrition and were admitted into emergency care. 

It is a depressing situation, and these people’s suffering makes me angry and sad. And yet the worst-case scenario was avoided this time. Much has been done in the last few years: the government filled the grain reserves in time and has been distributing food for months. Aid organizations such as the Welthungerhilfe have built cisterns to save the little water there is. The Afar herders’ sense of community and solidarity is so strong that they help the poorest of the poor even when they themselves have lost almost everything.

How serious is the situation really?

How bad is it really? With the greatest drought in decades, the situation is quite serious. Animals are dying and people are starving, not just here in Ethiopia but in large swathes of Africa all the way down to Zimbabwe. The culprit is climate change, which the people here did not cause but are suffering from the most. 

The problem is that the crisis has become normal, with one following another and, unlike in 1984, no recovery periods. And yet much has changed since then: the past years’ work of the government, the aid organizations and the public has paid off. The horrible pictures of starving children were fortunately avoided this time, but that creates a new problem: this is a forgotten crisis because it does not threaten us as directly as, for example, the Syrian refugee crisis, or because it is not covered by the media to the same extent. Hidden hunger is invisible.

Anyone who thinks that the rain has solved the problem is wrong. The rain is too late for the herders because they have already lost their livelihood. The underlying problem has not been solved either: we need to commit to investing in rebuilding and to strengthening resilience. A country cannot do this on its own. Now it is our turn to help with money, concrete aid and a strong voice. Otherwise, the hunger will never end. But, as everything we have already achieved proves, it can be ended:  that is, despite all the suffering that I saw on the trip, the conviction with which I am leaving Ethiopia again.

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