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Spirit and Water Sustain Ethiopians in Drought

By Michael Hill

Bishop Abraham Desta walked out into his compound in the Ethiopian town of Meki. You might look at the overgrown grass and cringe, thinking only of a hard day behind the lawn mower. Bishop Desta looked at it and smiled.

Bishop Desta

Father Temesgen Kebede runs the Catholic Secretariat, the social outreach arm of the Church for the Apostolic Vicariate of Meki in Ethiopia. Photo by Michael Hill/CRS

"This looks wonderful," he says.

The fact that the grass was growing and his small orchard of fruit trees was healthy meant one thing: Rain had been falling. This is not always the case in this part of Ethiopia, the Oromiya region south of the capital Addis Ababa.

Even in the best of years, the months of September and October are considered times of hunger. The crops are growing but not ready for harvest. And stocks stored from the last harvest are running low.

It has not been the best of times. The spring rains—the short rains—that were supposed to nourish the last harvest arrived late and fell erratically. For so many Ethiopians living on to the edge—quite literally from field to hand to mouth—this was disastrous.

The long rains, which come in the fall—Ethiopians call these months "winter" because it is the coldest time of the year—have been good here, but not in other parts of the country. Even where rains are falling, the harvest is still months away.

Living on the edge has become the normal way of life for many in this country. Bishop Desta is a bit puzzled that so many are deeply concerned about the current drought compared to ones he has dealt with in recent years.

"The only difference I see now is the amount of media attention," he says.

As Lane Bunkers, Catholic Relief Services' country representative in Ethiopia, points out, a food emergency was declared for the country in 2008 and has never been lifted. The numbers of people needing supplemental food rise and fall, but one thing is consistent: The inconsistent rain means many are always suffering from a lack of food and water.

That is why CRS has joined with Bishop Desta's vicariate, certainly to distribute food to the many who need it during this emergency, but also to help people develop the resilience to survive and even thrive in times of drought.

Much of that work is through Father Temesgen Kebede, who runs the Meki Catholic Secretariat, the social outreach arm of the Church.

Father Temesgen with Lane Bunkers

Bishop Abraham Desta of the Apostolic Vicariate of Meki hopes to enable Ethiopians to better withstand drought. He stands with Lane Bunkers, CRS country representative in Ethiopia. Photo by Michael Hill/CRS

"I don't know what we would be without CRS," Father Temesgen says. "They work with us, they stay with us. Other donors give us money, but CRS does so much more. When we are asking for help, CRS is ready for us."

'We Teach the Human'

CRS has been active in Ethiopia for more than 50 years, but really ramped up work in that country during a devastating famine from 1984 to 1985. At that time, CRS led an effort by several international faith-based humanitarian groups to feed millions of people, going so far as to purchase its own fleet of trucks to get food from the port to the people.

Now, CRS leads the Joint Emergency Operation Plan, a consortium of international aid organizations that helps keep hungry people alive when crops fail. More than 1 million Ethiopians currently depend on food distributed by JEOP through partners such as the Vicariate Apostolic of Meki.

Beyond that, private donations have enabled CRS to buy three drilling rigs, which we have given to the Ethiopian Catholic Secretariat. The rigs have traveled throughout the country to drill boreholes that sometimes must go 1,000 feet deep to hit water.

Because of this work, people who used to get water from ponds that appeared after rains, or who had to walk miles to rivers, are now able to access it easily.

"For some, this water was a miracle," says Father Temesgen. "You see a 75-year-old person and show him how to open the tap. He has never gotten water that way."

But it is not just a matter of drilling a well and driving away. Before the drilling begins, local committees form. In conjunction with trained hydrologists, they decide on the location of the borehole to ensure ease of access for all and sensitivity to local cultural issues. These local committees receive training on maintaining the well and its equipment. They agree to take on that responsibility, figuring out how much to charge local residents to pay for the upkeep and the fuel to run the generator, which powers the pump.

Some water in Ethiopia, particularly in the Rift Valley where Meki is located, emerges from deep underground pools with dangerously high levels of fluoride. Bekele Abaire, CRS' water and sanitation program manager in Ethiopia, was instrumental in designing a system to reduce that fluoride using easily obtained chemicals. Local committees run and maintain such systems.

Abundant water does not provide good health on its own. It must be accompanied by education about hygiene, simple lessons that people who grew up drinking from dirty ponds never had an opportunity to learn. Many of the water systems built with CRS support include bathing and clothes-washing systems, and troughs for livestock.

Working through partners such as the Vicariate Apostolic of Meki, CRS helps provide such education. And almost all of it goes to non-Catholics. Bishop Desta says there are only about 25,000 Catholics out of a population of 7 million in his apostolic vicariate. Most are Ethiopian Orthodox or Muslim.

But when the school in his vicariate opens each fall, "we have to take our phone off the hook, so many people call to try to get their children in," he says. "We cannot walk down the street, so many people stop us."

"We believe in integral human development," Bishop Desta says. "That does not mean just Catholic or Christian development. We teach the human, the person. Really, the spirit is what's important. We all need to be equal. When Catholic Relief Services came, they came with an integral human development approach. So we fit very well together."

Michael Hill is CRS' senior communications manager. He is based in Baltimore, Maryland.

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