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COVID-19 pandemic hunger threatens “hardest times” for families in Ethiopia

By Osman Hussein
Arid conditions in the Somali Region of Ethiopia have made farming and herding difficult for people for several years, and when an upsurge in locusts and the COVID-19 pandemic hit it added to the stress. Oxfam is providing seeds, tools, and cash to 11,000 families to help them get through this extraordinarily difficult period. Pablo Tosco/Oxfam

Farming, raising animals made even more difficult in the arid Somali Region

There is no dimension of Muhubo Mohamed Hassen’s life not disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

She and her husband and their seven children live in the Somali Region of Ethiopia and make a living growing cops like sorghum, herding cows and sheep, selling milk, and working as farm laborers or other temporary jobs to make ends meet.

“Now there is no market for the animals and crops these days due to movement restrictions that interrupted our daily life,” she says. “We used to collect milk from the rural areas and sell in the towns and villages but now we can’t go there as people fear coronavirus.”

Hassen says they can’t go to nearby towns to look for odd jobs, they can’t work with other farmers in their fields, and they are struggling to feed their families.

The COVID-19 pandemic is adding to an already challenging situation for families like Hassen’s in the Somali Region, where ethnic conflict between clans, unpredictable rains or outright drought, and more recently an upsurge in locusts have made life even more difficult and unpredictable.

“This is going to be the hardest time in our lives,” she says.

“Hunger looms”

Rural families in the Somali Region, who depend on their crops and animals for survival, face challenges even in a good year, Hassen says. “Every year in winter and summer, hunger looms,” she says. “Everyone, including our animals, suffer due to food shortage, and lack of water and pasture for the animals.”

Muhubo Hassen: “This is going to be the hardest time in our lives.” Osman Hussein/Oxfam

But when their farming and herding work went well, Hassen says the family had adequate food. “We used to eat [a] variety of foods such as rice, injera, maize, sorghum… In good times we used to eat at least three times a day.

“Now no more. We must save the food we have, to get to the next day. The only way we cope is by eating once or skipping a day without any food,” Hassen adds.

Drought is an even more severe threat. "If water is not available, we have no choice but to migrate with all the animals in search of water.”

Hassen and her family have coped with all these threats over the last few years, as dry years follow dry years and their ability to cope is stretched. She says the effects are visible in the number of animals they own: Their cow herd has diminished from a dozen to just four, and their sheep from 23 to 12 now. “They vanished due to lack of water and pasture,” she says.

Drought makes it hard to farm and eat as well. “Farming used to be better, but the few remaining crops we had have been completely wiped out by locust attacks. Nothing is left for us to scavenge now.”

“We are left empty handed.”

Seeds and tools

Many farmers in this part of Ethiopia have lost crops to locusts, and lack funds to buy more seeds and other inputs to replant. Oxfam is providing assistance to 11,000 farming families in the Somali and Oromia regions of south eastern Ethiopia, including seeds to grow crops, tools for cultivation, and cash — about $100 ($50 per month over two months).

The seed package will include maize and sorghum seeds, and Oxfam will provide training for farmers to help them monitor locust activity, and technical training in how to manage any additional locust threat.

Hassen is looking forward to the support and says it will help improve their situation. “When I receive the seeds, farming tools, and the money, we will plant the seeds, hire a tractor that can help us till the land and be able to harvest, sell and keep some food for our family. We will recover and go back to a normal life, at least,” she says. “It will take a lot of worry off my shoulders.”

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