By John Graham, Save the Children’s Ethiopia Country Director based in Addis Ababa
ON the dusty plains outside Erer in Ethiopia’s east, the rotting carcasses of cows, goats, donkeys and camels bake under the hot African sun. They are fodder for hungry vultures and stealthy hyenas. Until recently, 40-year-old Jama and his family called these lands home and had done so for generations.
But about a month ago, Jama, his wife, their 10 children and his mother made the difficult choice to sell their possessions and abandon these lands and their pastoral life.
They were forced out when all but 10 of their 450 goats and cattle died from the effects of the drought.
Now, they live in a small shack in one of the newly built informal settlements in town and rely on support from their government and Save the Children to survive.
“This is the worst drought in my life, my father’s life, even my grandfather’s life,” Jama said. “No one can remember anything like this. We weren’t prepared for it.”
Livestock are the lifeblood of these arid lowlands, their milk providing a vital source of nutrition, while the animals themselves are a commodity for trade. Here, wealth is defined by the number of cows and goats one owns rather than money.
Hundreds of thousands of livestock have perished from the drought in Ethiopia this year, according to local government officials, with many more expected to die before the year’s end.
Jama and his family couldn’t have seen this coming.
At the beginning of 2015, rainfall forecasts showed a relatively normal year ahead.
It was only in May, after the smaller Belg rains failed, that an El Niño weather pattern was declared. That pattern is predicted to be the strongest on record.
The failure of the Belg rains meant that the planting season was limited and when the typically strong Kiremt rains between July and September were poor too, in some areas for the first time since 1984, the alarm bells sounded.
As a result, the rate of severe malnutrition is increasing rapidly, particularly among children, with more than 350,000 expecting to need lifesaving therapeutic treatment this year alone.
By January, it’s predicted that 15 million Ethiopians will need food aid. That number is roughly equivalent to the population of Victoria, NSW and WA combined.
Such is the magnitude of this emergency that the Ethiopian Government has revised up its emergency funding appeal from $331.7 million in August to $839.9 million to the end of 2015.
Time is running out to procure enough food to meet these needs.
And all this is before fully measuring the humanitarian impact of the poor Kiremt rains — the worst in 30 years for much of the Ethiopian highlands, which produce 90 per cent of the nation’s crops. In those usually fertile lands, which stretch north from just outside Addis Ababa and cover an area roughly the size of New Zealand, farmers are staring at empty fields instead of harvesting crops like teff, wheat, barley and sorghum.
Ethiopia’s global request for help couldn’t come at a worse time, as other large-scale humanitarian crises unfold in places like Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Nepal and South Sudan. But we cannot turn our backs on Ethiopia — we must learn from the what the history books tell us about the region.
You need only look back to the Horn of Africa drought in 2011, which affected 13 million people and resulted in more than 250,000 dying from hunger in Somalia.
Back then, the early warning signs began to emerge a full year earlier, yet the international community took until the peak of the crisis to act at a sufficient level.
But it was too late and much of the damage had been done already. In the years that followed that scandalous failure of the international system, a range of preventive measures were put in place to ensure history did not repeat, including the implementation of large-scale drought resilience programs and strong policy commitments from donor countries.
But here we are again. This drought is forecast to be the strongest in Ethiopia in 30 years, yet funding commitments from international donors are worryingly low.
The Ethiopian Government has responded resoundingly, unlocking $268.8 million in funding and showing real leadership. They expect to be able to handle most of the impact of the emergency themselves. Aid agencies are helping, too. Save the Children is on the ground in 101 of 142 of the worst-affected districts providing support including food, water, medicine and nutrition supplements for children suffering from malnutrition. Now the international community must heed the warning and act urgently.
Australia must play its part, just like it did in 2011 when it gave more than $140 million to the Horn of Africa drought response and was commended for its leadership in galvanising other donors to act.
This is no ordinary year in Ethiopia. This is a “code red” and it needs to be treated like one.
Photo: A farmer in his barren field
in Sewena, Bale Zone, Ethiopia. He sowed the
field in hope of normal rains, but there was only one day of recorded rainfall in a season which typically produces 45.
Kyle Degraw/Save the Children
This article was first published in the Herald Sun, 23 November 2015.
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