Anguish as Ethiopians run out of options

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Fikerte Abebe, a communications officer, takes a heart-rending journey through the driest regions of her country, Ethiopia.

The road is dusty and the vegetation dry. The entire Miyo district of south Ethiopia looks as though it has been scorched by fire. As we travel the long road south from the capital 600km away, certain sights overwhelm me.

The drought caused by prolonged rain failure has devastated entire areas on many levels. In the last months, grazing pasture has been depleted, water supplies have dried up, livestock have lost productivity, died or been killed, maize crops have wilted, and food has become scarce. Drought has created massive trails of migration as people and livestock seek elusive water supplies. Kenya’s government has declared an emergency, saying that the drought will hit up to 3.5 million people.

Melkamu, our guide, explains that if it was not for the failed rainy seasons, vegetation would by now be leafy and fertile, and the earth covered by green pasture. Instead, plants have withered and the land lies dusty and barren.

For the last 100km, the view from our car has not changed. It is as if the entire scene keeps repeating itself. We are quiet for a long time, contemplating the lifelessness outside and searching for anything to distract us.

It is then that a young man appears from a clump of dry trees, herding a few livestock. As we get closer, we can see this young farmer's two cows are weary and weak. One calf can barely walk. Despite it being early morning, the young man also looks exhausted. I decide to stop for a while and talk to him and find he is willing to talk to me.

Looking for greener pastures

The man opens by saying his name is Wario Dera. “I left my village yesterday evening around 8pm because I heard that the Melbana area is a little bit wet. I have already lost six of my cattle in the last two months and if I lose these ones I will have nothing. My only hope for water and pasture is Melbana. I am hoping to reach it by tomorrow,” says the 24-year-old father of two. As he talks, he tries to stop his restless and desperate cattle wandering away.

But having just come through Melbana, I know it is one of the most severely-hit areas of the district. I feel bad that I am unable to help direct Wario elsewhere, to a place with better opportunities.

Do his wife and children have enough food to survive his absence? Wario says he bought them some food before he left. “I expect to be back home with them after 15 days. If I do not find the conditions in Melbana to be what I expected, I may have to travel even further.”

Wario assures us he has enough to eat for his journey by pointing to a plastic bag of 2kg of boiled maize. We bid farewell Wario, wishing him the best. Thinking of the long journey - 100km - we made from Melbana by car, we are very much aware that Wario has, indeed, a long way to go.

Nowhere left to go

As we head further south, it is the same story all over. Everywhere there is a thirst for water. All things in our society depend on this precious resource. In the nearby rural town, Hidilola, we see a long line of people waiting to receive water rations. The length of the line signals something very worrying: demand is much higher than supply.

We drive with the same constant view of dry, arid land all the way to the semi-highland of Miyo, now more than 700km from Addis Ababa and close to the Kenya border. This is the land of agro-pastoralists, a group of people considered well-off compared to those in neighbouring villages.

Usually, a failed rain would not spell devastation. But this year the dearth of rain struck these people too. All over the village, we see maize plants that are dry as old sticks. This year, the people do not expect a harvest at all.

The 65-year-old village elder, Haleke Kelema, has lived here all his life. “A lack of rain is not new to this community. In the past, when the rain did not come, we would move to other neighbourhoods. This time it's different. There is nowhere nearby that is better than here.”

Haleke lost four cows five months ago and is left with only one. This sole cow was one of just over 900 cattle fed by ACT for 45 days at an emergency livestock feeding centre, saving his cow and other weak livestock in the village. “We are very thankful. But then the feeding service ceased and the rains did not come as expected. As you can see, the maize we planted is lifeless. We are totally dependent on our remaining livestock.

“Before this crisis, there were people here considered to be the poorest by the government, who received help through a programme known as “safety net”. However, the crisis has brought us all to the same level. Now we are all in desperate need of assistance.”

One focus of ACT's work in Ethiopia is to keep families, villages and towns intact when devastation threatens. Humanitarian advisor Christer Laenkholm says ACT aims to prevent families having to leave their homes in search of food elsewhere.

“If they do that it can go really wrong, as we have seen in Somalia. Here in Ethiopia it has not been possible to help people where they live. Many have therefore fled to Kenya where they are now in a very bad way.”

ACT works in the Borena region of Ethiopia through member DanChurchAid


In the Borena region, which includes Miyo district, ACT has

Trucked 3302m3 water to people in the Miyo, Dugda-Dawa and Dillo districts for 45 days in April and May. A total of 52,000 people received five litres each day

Distributed household water tanks and water purification chemicals to reduce contamination

Supplied emergency feed for 915 cattle selected from 413 households in the Miyo, Dugada-Dawa and Dillo districts for 45 days