Ethiopia is in the grip of a devastating drought sparked by the worst El Niño in a generation, and aid agencies warn that food aid could run out as soon as May.
Unlike in the past, the government and aid groups have kept food shipments flowing to areas ravaged by drought in recent months. But they need more money, at a time when international donors are distracted by a string of humanitarian disasters around the world.
Above: In the various pastoralist regions of Ethiopia, the livestock are often the first affected by the drought because of the lack of adequate grazing land.
Ethiopia burned itself into the West’s collective memory with the horrific famines of 1973 and 1984, when hundreds of thousands starved to death and images of dying children appeared on the world’s television screens.
Since that time, the government has struggled to shed this image of the world’s charity case by turning Ethiopia into Africa’s new economic juggernaut, with a decade of 10 percent annual growth. Barring natural disasters, the country is also practically self-sufficient in food.
Members of a community in Chelko, Ethiopia, wait to receive their rationing of food supplies, which could include wheat, oil and split peas. Due to food shortages, rationing and distribution can often be based on a regional rotation.
There has also been a concerted effort in cooperation with international aid agencies to create safety nets to ensure that the kind of famine that inspired the 1985 Live Aid concert would never happen again.
Drought conditions in Ethiopia
March to Sept. 2015 rainfall compared with 1981-2014 average
Sources: Famine Early Warning
Systems Network, USGS
LAZARO GAMIO / THE WASHINGTON POST
These days, early warning systems alert the government when famine threatens, and in 2015, these kicked into action after the spring and summer rains failed, leaving herders trapped in desert pastures and farmers with extensive crop failures across the north and east of the country.
The drought is caused in part by the El Niño warming phenomenon over the Pacific Ocean, a cyclical phenomenon that many scientists say has intensified in recent years because of global climate change. It has disrupted rains in different parts of the continent, with South Africa and Zimbabwe experiencing drought as well.
At first, some in the Ethiopian government claimed the country could handle the drought itself. But as the numbers of needy skyrocketed, authorities issued an appeal.
In December, they said about 10.2 million people were in need of $1.4 billion in aid, with 400,000 children severely malnourished. This is in addition to 8 million people supported by the government safety net even before the drought. To date, 46 percent of the appeal has been met, and the worst could be yet to come.
Aside from fetching firewood for cooking, women are also responsible for fetching water for drinking and cooking. With limited water supply, women dig holes across the bare land in hopes of reaching the water table. The daily chore can take several hours and often yields murky water.
“I remember 1984, people would migrate or just die,” said Mohammed Abdullah, a haggard farmer in his 40s in a village in the highlands of East Hararghe, about 300 miles east of the capital. Normally, villagers would be harvesting corn and sorghum now, but the terraced hillsides were largely empty. “This time, the government response is on time and coming before people leave.”
He shuddered, though, when asked what would happen if the handouts stopped, as may happen if an additional $700 million in funding is not secured. “If there was no support and the rains don’t come, people will start dying.”
Abdullah said that although the food aid was not enough, the villagers were surviving by sharing what they received.
“Now we are begging for rain,” said Raimah Sayyed, 70, as she cuddled her half-naked grandchild and absently tore leaves off a nearby bush and chewed on them. “If the rain comes, everything will be okay.”
Local officials say that the need is actually larger than the handouts and, in some cases, villagers are getting the food rations every other month to stretch supplies.
Meskey Mohammed prepares breakfast for her 2-year-old at home in Geramam. Many in the small community survive by trading what they have, while others buy supplies on credit or sell their remaining cattle.
‘All we need are the resources’
In contrast to past droughts, the government has spent heavily of its own money to stave off famine, putting down $381 million since the summer, which Mitiku Kassa, the head of the Disaster Prevention and Preparedness Committee, points out was practically the entire government budget 20 years ago.
It is not enough, however, and in January, a roundtable with the United Nations, the U.S. Agency for International Development and other donors was held to call for more funds.
Aid agencies have singled out the United States as the most responsive country, with $532 million spent on humanitarian aid since October 2014, including $97 million in aid announced in January.
Kassa said there are signs the world is waking up to the severity of the situation.
“It was so slow because of the prior engagement of the donor partners, especially in the Middle East with the Syrian immigrants to Europe,” he said, adding that “the scale of the drought is far bigger than the drought we confronted in 1984.”
John Graham, the country director of Save the Children for Ethiopia and a 19-year veteran of aid work in the country, said this is the worst international response to a drought that he has seen.
“We have got a really, really bad drought, but we can head off the consequences. All we need are the resources,” he said. “We don’t have to wait six months from now to see hungry babies on television screens.”
The suffering may be evident sooner than that, according to the World Food Program (WFP), one of the major providers of the food rations being handed out to patiently waiting people at centers across the country.
The agency estimates that unless new money comes in by the end of February, those centers will stop providing the monthly ration by May, and at that point the real disaster will occur.
“Because in May, if we run out of food, we start having a pretty immediate spike in severe malnutrition,” said John Aylieff, WFP country director, referring to the swollen bellies and listless children long associated with droughts. “We have a chance to stop this — we have a chance to keep Ethiopia on its development trajectory — but the window we have to work with is very small.”
“There was no rain, no pastures. The ground became like sand,” recalled Asha Abdelahi at the Aydora camp in the middle of a flat, scrub-filled desert, describing how her herd of 200 sheep and goats has been reduced to just five. “The animals started dying, so I carried my children here.”
“Here” is a collection of small buildings, a children’s clinic and a school under a grove of acacia trees more than 60 miles from the nearest city. It is home to more than 8,000 people. An estimated 100,000 people have been displaced by the drought since the summer.
For now, the children are filled with energy, badgering visiting reporters before getting shooed away by stick-wielding elders. But it is a precarious life, and should the trucks carrying the sacks of grain be interrupted, it could rapidly deteriorate.
Each morning, Meskey Mohammed, 25, herds her goats up a rugged mountain within walking distance of her home in Geramam. Since the drought began, she has lost 15 goats and is surviving through her husband, who is working as a laborer in a nearby town. A recipient of the Mercy Corps voucher program, she is able to keep her cattle alive due to the proximity of the remaining grazing land in her area.