Time running out for millions as drought returns to Ethiopia

Time running out for millions as drought returns to Ethiopia

Blighted by years of failed rains, villagers cannot survive alone

John Vidal in Addis Ababa
Saturday December 7, 2002
The Guardian


Ibro Said died malnourished and destitute two weeks ago and the boy's grave on the edge of the village of Gewgew is marked by a small stone gathered from the drought-hit plain beyond.

The village, in Ethiopia's remote, semi-arid West Harange lowlands, has nothing. This should be harvest time but its sorghum and maize crops are wilting or dead, its grain stores are empty and its animals are dying and worthless.

Water is a three hour walk away, the nearest school and health clinic more than six and the 2,000 people in the scattered community of subsistence farmers exist only because emergency food aid trickles in from Save the Children fund each month.

The villagers share their meagre rations, supplement their diets with nutritionally worthless cactus plants and leaves and fear the death of their animals, which would mean the total destruction of their livelihoods. They do not expect to die, but - almost worse - see themselves becoming permanently dependent on others and unable to recover.

"We are happy to get food, but it is also a curse. We would prefer to depend on ourselves," says village leader Ishmael Youssef. "This is the worst situation we have ever had to face. We used to be self-sufficient but after four years of droughts we have no options, money or access to work".

He holds opens the palm of a thin hand to show how much grain he eats in a day: "The droughts come more often now and each year we grow weaker," he says. "It is the same for everyone else in the whole region. There is nothing good here now. We are illiterate, permanently hungry and must live like animals."

Gewgew is far from alone. On Friday the UN's world food programme will announce that, following new harvest assessments, 11.2 million people in Ethiopia will need food assistance for at least a year, with three million more very likely to need help later.

The figures more or less confirm last month's back-of-the-envelope forecast by Ethiopian prime minister Meles Zenawi who said that 14 million would need help. But they undermine the assessment by the development secretary, Clare Short, that the situation in southern Africa - where the UN's world food programme says up to 28 million are at risk of malnutrition - is "much more worrying".

Up to 2m tonnes of emergency food aid must now be delivered to Ethiopia in one of the biggest relief efforts to a single country in the last 20 years, stretching logistics and donor goodwill to the limit.

Five million Ethiopians need food aid each year even when harvests are good, but aid workers, the government and analysts, while confident of meeting minimum needs, fear that increasing numbers of people like those in Gewgew are in real danger of slipping into permanent destitution and total dependency.

Although harvests in Ethiopia are only down 8-15% on last year, this is enough to provoke a major crisis. "It now only takes a small drop in harvests and suddenly millions of people need help," says Peter Kerby, food security officer for the Department for International Development in Addis Ababa. "There are now many more very vulnerable people, living right on the edge and just about holding their heads above water. But the slightest ripple and you can have eight, 10 or 12 million people going under."

He and others fear that population increases, environmental degradation and more frequent droughts are combining to steadily push people beyond the point where they can ever fully recover. His fears are backed by an alarming new study from the University of Sussex which found that the number of destitute people in some regions has increased from 5.5% to 14% in 10 years, with normally self-sufficient people now needing permanent help. Up to 55% of people are now thought to be "vulnerable" compared with just 17% in 1992.

The intensity of this year's drought is not uncommon in Ethiopia, but it is more geographically widespread than normal and is affecting twice as many people as in 1984 or 2000, the last two major emergencies. Deaths are not expected on the scale of 1984, when one million people died after the government tried to sup press information, mainly because Ethiopia now has long experience at delivering aid and a sophisticated early warning system.

But there are signs that the situation is rapidly deteriorating and that people are not able to respond as usual. December is only the start of the long dry season, yet more than 70,000 cattle have already died in the Amhgara region and similar numbers in Somali province. In some areas a malnutrition rate of 15% is reported.

Serious water shortages have now hit Tigray, Afar and Oromiya, and in the east and west Hargahe districts people are experiencing a fifth successive bad harvest. The most affected groups so far are the lowland pastoralists who depend on their cattle.

Meanwhile food prices are rising steeply but the market for cattle has almost collapsed. Looting and theft is reported, many villages are about to move, making food distribution harder, and many thousands of people have begun cutting trees to earn money from firewood or charcoal. There have also been clashes for several months in the Afar region between lowland and highland farmers competing for pastures or water sources.

In the badly affected Shinille district of Somalia province, tens of thousands of semi-nomadic pastoralist farmers are preparing to migrate in search of water and pasture, but for the first time ever say that they are unsure where to go.

"This drought is the worst in memory. People are very worried. It is like 1984, when the rains did not come, the livestock died and then the children. The difference with 1984 is that today there is nowhere to go this time. The serious malnutrition is just starting, and many people will die," says Ilmigot Gedi, a government officer in Shinille

"People are more vulnerable now than before. They have not got over the drought in 2000. Their coping power is less. Ninety per cent of the people are at risk.

"Very few people are cooking, and many families have run out of food. Many would have died already if food aid had not come. This is the start of the long dry season and you can imagine the problems in a few months. There is no demand at all for livestock. You cannot sell a cow for the price of a pair of shoes."

Kahiye Farer, an elder in the village of Gat in Shinille, says: "We pray each night under a large tree for rain. Even our grandparents never told us of times like these. Usually with a drought we have somewhere to go. But this time we have no options. Families are leaving. Soon there will be no one left here."

John Gordon, projects officer for Save the Children Fund, says: "This is the real test of what the world has learned since 1984. Preventing the situation getting to mass numbers is now essential."