Ethiopia Suffers Worst Drought in 50 Years
“We’re trying our best to survive.”
Toshome Tesfalye sits in his one-room mud brick house in eastern Ethiopia. His worn clothes hang loosely over his gaunt body.
“We eat only twice a day and it’s not enough. We always feel hungry,” he says.
A baby’s cry cuts through the heavy air in the room. Toshome’s wife rests behind a curtain that separates the sleeping area from the rest of the dark room. She gave birth to a boy just a day earlier.
Toshome, whose stark features belie that he is only 32, is not alone.
Ethiopia is in the grip of its worst drought in 50 years. Some regions haven’t had rain in over 2 years. More than 10 million people are facing hunger and malnutrition, and depend on emergency food aid. That number is expected to grow following scant March rains. Most of the eastern half of the country is affected by the lack of rain.
Rivers and streams that once irrigated fields are now empty, and the rocky river beds blend into a bleak landscape of dusty red soil and rocks. The only green vegetation is invasive shrubs and cactuses. Vultures are common, as animal carcasses increasingly dot the landscape.
Women walk with yellow containers, and then kneel to collect what they can from small pools of brownish water.
“We’re severely affected by the drought,” says Asrat Megste, Toshome’s mother-in-law.
Sitting opposite him on the bare concrete floor of his house, she explains that her life now depends entirely on food assistance. Her pronounced cheek and jaw bones show that she has lost a lot of weight.
Critical food aid
Many have opted to sell valuable livestock for low prices or have migrated to bigger cities in hopes of finding day labor. They have run out of other options for earning a living and have no money for food.
“It’s been a difficult year,” says Matt Davis, CRS Ethiopia country representative, who oversees the emergency response and a number of large-scale, long-term development programs there. “Because of Ethiopia’s location and elevation, climate change and a prolonged El Nino have caused widespread drought that dramatically impacts agricultural areas. Eighty-five percent of Ethiopia’s population depends on rain-fed agriculture, and many farmers haven’t had a harvest in almost 2 years.”
Ethiopia’s short rainy season has been disappointing. Some areas haven’t seen a drop of rain.
Building resilience to withstand drought
Families who have benefited from the CRS Development Food Assistance program offer a glimmer of hope. The 5-year project, generously funded by the American people through the U.S. Agency for International Development, offers food and cash payments in exchange for work on public infrastructure improvements. Participants receive training in entrepreneurship and personal financial management through Savings and Internal Lending Communities.
Isha Ahmed, a mother of eight, recently completed two consecutive development programs that helped her community address issues like soil erosion, flooding and outdated agricultural practices. She now participates in a 22-member SILC. The group, mostly women, pools savings and makes loans to start small businesses, send children to school, or buy and sell products in the local market.
“Eight years ago, we couldn’t send our kids to school,” Isha says. “They used to walk barefoot. They ate breakfast but couldn’t eat lunch. We couldn’t buy them clothes, and we always had to wash the few clothes they had. Now I have a box of clothes and they can change whenever they want.”
She sits in a circle with the other women of her SILC group on dry, brown grass. “If there was rain, this area would be all green. You could even sleep on this grass,” Isha says with a laugh, eliciting a chuckle from the other women. But the mood quickly turns serious again, as the women talk about the challenges of this epic drought.
“If it wasn’t for this program, I’d be on the streets,” Isha says. “But instead, I’m sending my kids to school.”
Hoping for rain
“Just the fact that Ethiopia has developed, and communities have moved along with their own resilience in small business and livestock, they can manage to weather through,” Davis says. “But it’s still a big test for any community. We hope for better rain this year. The jury is still out, but we hope to have enough rain and a strong harvest, and that Ethiopia gets back on track again.”
The many fallow plots of land indicate that hope for rain is universal.
“We haven’t had rain for a year,” Isha says. “All we want is rain. Just pray for us that it will rain.”