Ethiopia drought not a full-scale disaster, benefitting from political stability – National Catholic Reporter

As Ethiopia emerges from the worst drought in decades, you’ll have to look very hard to find the expected results of severe drought: emaciated children, skin-and-bones cattle, malnourished nursing mothers desperate for food, skeletal elders hovering in doorways.

Unlike the horrifying images that garnered world attention during Ethiopia’s infamous drought from 1983 to 1985, most of the 10 million people directly affected by the current drought don’t look like they are on the brink of starvation for one simple reason: They aren’t.

“We have avoided a major catastrophe because of major accomplishments that Ethiopia has been able to do,” said Choice Okoro, the head of the Strategic Communications Unit for the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Ethiopia. “These national systems are behind Ethiopia’s success — these are the backbones of the response of the current drought,” Okoro said, crediting government programs for the free flow of international aid.

The drought has affected most of the country, imperiling crops in six of the country’s eight administrative regions, in addition to other countries such as Zimbabwe, South Africa, Sudan and South Sudan, and some parts of Kenya and Uganda.

The Catholic church is deeply involved with drought relief in Ethiopia and across Africa, although Catholics make up less than 1 percent of Ethiopia’s population.

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In December 2015, the government, in cooperation with international aid agencies like the United Nations and Catholic Relief Services, estimated that more than 10 million people, 10 percent of the population, were in need of food assistance, and 400,000 children were severely malnourished. The cost of providing immediate drought relief, they said, is $1.2 billion, revised to $1.4 billion in May.

Catholic Relief Services is at the head of a conglomerate of international aid organizations providing food to 2.8 million people, about a quarter of the people affected by the drought. The Catholic Near East Welfare Agency is providing drought assistance to about 8,000 people.

A different picture

The words “Ethiopian famine” immediately bring to mind images of gaunt children, desperately trying to get food during a 1983-85 drought that captured world headlines. Those pictures, broadcast around the world, spurred international outcry and Bob Geldof’s 1985 Live Aid concerts.

At the time, Ethiopia was mired in a civil war under the Derg military regime, and the severe drought exacerbated by the political climate was a disastrous combination. More than 500,000 people died.

“In 1984-85, the worst part of the drought was not the drought itself, but the displacement of people,” said Hagos Medhin, the CRS field office manager in Mekelle, the capital of Tigray Region. “[This was] because the government did not allow the food to reach the towns, and the fighters in the villages didn’t allow the distribution of food,” Medhin said, explaining that one segment of the villagers migrated to Sudan with the fighters while others moved to towns and were placed in camps. “In the camps, there were diseases like cholera and typhoid, and that was the reason for death,” he said.

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Conditions are different this time around. “This time, the drought is more severe than 1984,” he said. Geographically it’s wider and it’s more severe, but people are getting support in their localities. That is really critical.”

Okoro pointed to major gains in health infrastructure, with the presence of a clinic in every “woreda,” or local district. When aid groups wanted to do community education about malnutrition issues, the health workers were already perfectly placed locally to carry out this work.

“Drought is going to be a recurrent problem, and Ethiopia is not the only country dealing with drought,” she said. “But 1984 won’t happen again.”