Ethiopia's drought overlooked as aid funneled to more desperate crises – Al Jazeera America

by Zelalem

The northern Ethiopia highlands of Tigray has long struggled with unreliable rainy seasons.
James Jeffrey

The government has since been criticized by aid agencies for delaying and not admitting the severity sooner while trying to maintain the narrative of Ethiopia’s great economic renaissance, achieving about 10 percent annual growth for the last decade.

Then there’s the hurdle of compassion fatigue: 2015 has seen crises all over the world overwhelm headlines, governments and NGOs.

Aid agencies warn this drought could impact Ethiopia’s long-term prospects, with significant gains made over the years in food security, education and health are now in jeopardy in parts of Ethiopia. “Consequences could ripple through generations,” says the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund.

To the east of Tigray is its even more arid regionally neighbor: the Afar, famous for its Danakil depression — the hottest place on earth.

“This area is normally drought-affected, so the life of the community depends on the government and NGOs,” says 40-year-old Dawit Hegos, a schoolteacher in the small Afar town of Mawo. “This drought is a big problem. It’s unreasonable to expect the government to do everything; other countries with crises need help — it’s not just Ethiopia.”

About a mile from the school is a dam built by ADCS with foreign funds in 2012, creating a small reservoir for the surrounding area’s livestock.

“Before the dam we had no access to water and had to take cattle far away into the hills to try find rivers,” says Hussein Esmael, a member of the local militia, his AK-47 perched on a shoulder. “Now it’s needed even more as animals don’t have strength to go long distances to find water.”

From many of those living in Tigray and Afar comes a common and ominous refrain: “The animals die first.” Those working for NGOs now scrabbling for funds point out that historically the effects of a drought get worst from about January onwards, when people have used up all their reserve food stocks.

Already people are cutting back on food. For some a meal consists of coffee and bread, or injera — a spongy pancake-shaped bread — with a little salt, the usual accompanying vegetables and meat sauces absent.

“There are a lot of mothers coming to us saying, ‘I have nothing in my breast, give me something for my baby,’” says 28-year-old Solomon Sibhat, a clinical nurse at a health center in the small town of Alitena. “It has got worse. But we have nothing to help. We say we are sorry.”

Foreign financial assistance is arriving, totalling about $167 million so far, combined with the Ethiopian government committing an unprecedented $192 million to help prevent deaths from the drought.

But the overall emergency response could cost $1.4 billion, according to aid agencies, especially if El Niño quashes Ethiopia’s next rainy season. The United Nations estimates such a situation could result in more than 15 million Ethiopians suffering food shortages, acute malnutrition or worse by mid-2016 unless donations increase.

And that mushrooming figure may well prove an underestimate once again, if the current trend of aid agency press releases with ever-increasing numbers is anything to go by.

“We really feel guilty when we see what we are supposed to do but can’t because of lack of resources and capabilities,” says Sister Azalech, director of the clinic at Idaga Hamus.

When asked what needs to happen, among the nun’s reply in Tigrinya one word stands out clearly: “Geunzeb.” Money.

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