Poor rain coupled with deep poverty, unrelenting conflict, and a lack of basic investment have left more than 10 million people across East Africa facing a severe food crisis.
Hardest hit is the triangle that includes south and central Somalia, southern Ethiopia, and northern Kenya, parts of which have suffered from the lowest recorded rainfall since 1950 and 1951. In the northeast Kenyan district of Wajir, just 100 millimeters of rain fell in the last 12 months—one quarter of the yearly average, which already was barely enough.
The price of staples, such as rice and corn, has spiked to record levels in many areas, and hundreds of thousands of animals, on which people depend for food and income, have died. In parts of Ethiopia and Kenya, 60 percent or more of the herds have perished. Livestock markets have collapsed, leaving people with far less purchasing power than before.
Oxfam is now responding to the crisis by providing life-saving water, sanitation services, food, and cash. The organization aims to reach 3 million people, including 700,000 in Ethiopia, 1.3 million in Kenya, and 500,000 in Somalia, where conflict has increased people’s suffering and malnutrition rates are climbing. Nearly half the children from southern Somalia seeking safety in Ethiopian refugee camps are arriving malnourished, according to the United Nations.
Drought: the new norm needs new solutions
Drought-triggered emergencies have become increasingly common in the region, where many families make their livings as herders. The rains have failed in at least five of the last seven years. When grazing lands shrivel and ponds dry up, the pressure on herding families becomes extreme, often forcing them to travel great distances in search of necessities like water and pasture.
While immediate assistance will help people survive, it is not enough—not in the face of repeated drought, which has now become the norm in the region. Governments and the international community need to treat this as a long-term problem as well as an urgent crisis.
And that has been Oxfam’s approach in Ethiopia where the organization works with local partner groups to provide emergency aid that also helps communities build their resilience to future hardship. Oxfam aims to reduce people’s risk to disaster by linking its emergency response to community projects that will make villages stronger in the years ahead.
A good example of that kind of link is the dam Oxfam helped construct in the rugged northern region of Tigray following the 2008 global food crisis, which hit as severe drought also had a stranglehold on many parts of the country. The combined crisis snared millions of Ethiopians.
Together with the Tigray regional government and the Women’s Association of Tigray, Oxfam built an earthen dam across a gulch in the hills of Boye Gararsa, allowing run-off from rain to pool into a lake behind the dam. The lake now provides a year-round source of water for more than 26,000 animals and 5,500 people, saving them from having to trudge with their water jugs to the nearest source 11 miles away—a trip they had to make any time their local ponds dried up.
Through a cash-for-work program during the crisis, Oxfam also ensured villagers had access to other essentials they needed for survival. Oxfam and the women’s association engaged local men and women to build terraces and trenches on the slopes around the lake to prevent dirt from running off and clogging it. Those soil conservation measures will help ensure their new lake has a long life. And the money that workers earned provided their families with a cushion, preventing them from having to sell off their assets, such as animals, to get cash to meet their basic needs.
Oxfam is now working with the women’s association on a plan to build drinking troughs for the animals and a treatment system to ensure the supply is clean for families.
“It was easier to give our children bread than water,” said Letebrhan Abera of the days before the dam. “We feared when our children asked for water. This dam has brought a lot of change.”
During the 2008 crisis, change is what some of the herders in Ethiopia’s southern Guji Zone said they wanted. A big change.
Depending only on animals raised on the hard-packed plains of Liben had become too difficult in the face of constant drought and other challenges such as the encroachment of brush on pasture and the privatization of common lands. So the herders asked if Oxfam would help with the development of a small-scale irrigation project along the banks of the Dawa River.
A total of 201 families joined the project and reaped a bountiful first harvest on 50.25 hectares of tilled land. Mishaps, including a flood that washed out the first pump house, dampened the herders’ enthusiasm for a while. But a new pump has been installed, two development agents and a supervisor have been assigned to the site, and families have now planted 85 percent of the available land.
In May, as drought gripped parts of southern Ethiopia, hope for the future ran high in the village of Melka Guba, where many of the small-scale irrigation participants live.
“With irrigation we can continuously produce,” said Alio Kuto, who owns animals but had also done rain-fed farming in the past. “We can harvest and at the same time plant.”