Weathering Drought in Ethiopia

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By Tenagne Mekonnen, Africa Region Communication and Administration Manager
Posted on 12/29/2015
Members of the Fentale Child and Family Development Association in Kobo, Ethiopia discuss how their lives have changed in the past few years.

Members of the Fentale Child and Family Development Association in Kobo, Ethiopia discuss how their lives have changed in the past few years.

Gele remembers when life was different. “Our cattle had fodder,” she says. “They gave us milk, butter, cheese. Our children had food to eat. They went to school happily, and we were strong enough. We had three meals a day.”

But drought has come to Ethiopia again.

“Life is hard. No water, no food,” says Gele, the mother of six. She lives in the Kobo woreda, or district, of Ethiopia’s Oromia region.

Prone to weather extremes, the ancient nation in the Horn of Africa has suffered both droughts and flooding over the centuries. This year’s strong El Niño pattern of warming waters quelled rainfall during belg, the brief rainy season in March and April that pastoral farmers in Oromia depend upon to keep their livestock healthy, and delayed the longer summer rains, kiremt, diminishing harvests even further.

A young girl in Kobo, Ethiopia.

A young girl in Kobo, Ethiopia.

Like Gele, most people here are farmers and herders who graze their camels, goats and cattle on increasingly dry, dusty lands. With so little nourishment, the animals cannot produce the rich dairy products that once fed the farmers and their families. Gele’s farm used to provide enough to feed her children well and send them to school. Two of her children are grown; four remain at home and in school.

“The way we survive now is we sell the livestock to purchase grain,” says Gele, an active committee member of the Fentale Child and Family Development Association, ChildFund International’s local partner organization in this rural woreda about 115 miles from Addis Ababa.

“Since the livestock are not in good condition, we sell them for a very cheap price.” In good times, she could fetch 1,000 birr — roughly $47 at current exchange rates — for a goat; now she is lucky to sell one for 300 birr, about $14. “But what can we do? We have to sell for such a low price so our children can survive and go to school,” Gele says.

With diminished income and skyrocketing prices, she can buy less and less food. And what she buys is of poorer quality than food she could produce under better weather conditions. The terrible cycle worsens every day the drought continues.

Gele worries most about the children. She sends hers off to school after a breakfast of only grains, and when they return in the evening she feeds them grains again. “We are very concerned about the nutritional status of our children,” she says.

ChildFund is responding with humanitarian assistance for children and families, providing supplementary food and edible oils for young children, mothers and the elderly in our program areas hit hard by the drought — nearly 74,000 people in all. With food assistance, we hope to help people overcome the current crisis and return to making steady progress on so many fronts, from health and education to sanitation and income generation, all important for children’s development.

One committee member says, 'Lately it has been very hard to survive, with no food or water. The rain seems to have forgotten our area.'

One committee member says, "Lately it has been very hard to survive, with no food or water. The rain seems to have forgotten our area."

Gele’s children are in school now, but she doesn’t know what the future holds. In the meantime, she spends her days looking for water, often traveling over 10 miles to the nearest town to fetch drinking and cooking water in the yellow plastic jugs one sees everywhere. She tried digging a well, but the water wasn’t fit for consumption by humans or animals. She may travel for up to three hours to the Awash River for water for her livestock. And sometimes she’s not so lucky. “There are days we don’t even get water after walking a long distance. We come back discouraged, tired and depressed.”

The Ethiopian government has made great strides to build the economy and infrastructure and reduce its citizens’ vulnerability to adverse weather conditions. Despite the improvements and economic growth thus far and, hopefully, to continue, the country needs help during this time of crisis. From August to December, the government more than doubled its estimate of people who will need food assistance in 2016, from 4.5 million to 10.2 million. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) says we are at the beginning of a crisis expected to last one year.

“One thing is certain,” says Samir Wanmali, acting country director for the U.N.’s World Food Programme, as quoted in an OCHA news release in November. “Ethiopia today is far different from the Ethiopia of the past. Ethiopia has a robust disaster risk management system in place to respond to the needs of its people. With the government’s leadership and support from the international community, we will mitigate the worst of El Niño’s effect. We need to ensure that this natural disaster does not affect the remarkable progress that Ethiopia has made over the past decade.”

“We don’t know about our future,” says Gele. “We depend on God and our government.”

ChildFund is there to help. Our commitment to Ethiopia, where we have worked for more than 40 years, runs deep. Help feed children and families in Ethiopia, and protect their remarkable — and fragile — progress, by donating here.