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Millions face hunger as drought sweeps East Africa

By Coco McCabe
DSC-5838ELJanssonEthiopia12Aug2009.jpg
Villagers near Gutu Dobi in southern Ethiopia remove silt from the bottom of a dry pond. By making the pond a little deeper, they hope it will hold more water--when the rain comes. Photo by Eva-Lotta Jansson/Oxfam America

A five-year drought is stretching across East Africa, pushing millions toward hunger and taking a particularly severe human toll in Kenya, Ethiopia, Somalia, and Uganda.

In Ethiopia, 6.2 million people are in need of immediate food assistance.

For families of herders and part-time farmers in the Oromiya and Tigray regions, the need is acute.  Malnutrition levels among the poorest of them have climbed above emergency thresholds set by the World Health Organization. In addition to those needing this emergency assistance, the Ethiopian government is helping 7.5 million other people with food and cash through its Productive Safety Net Program.

Oxfam America is responding to the new crisis with a multi-part relief plan that aims to help about 350,000 people in Tigray and Oromiya. The initiative, which needs the financial support of donors to reach all the intended beneficiaries, includes supplemental feeding for mothers and children, meals for school children, a cash-for-work program that provides families with money to buy food in exchange for labor on community projects, and veterinary care for livestock. The latter will help to ensure cattle, goats, and sheep can weather the drought and continue to provide critical food and income for herding families.

“If we are able to respond in a timely way, we can reach these people, save lives, save livelihoods, and help people to be resilient to future shocks,” said Abera Tola, Oxfam America’s regional director for the Horn of Africa.

In  parts of Oromiya’s Borena Zone, the pressure on dwindling resources has increased as migrating herders and their livestock have swept in from Kenya in search of pasture and water. An Oxfam assessment team, sent to the region in early August, reported an estimated 100,000 extra animals, mostly cattle, were severely straining the water supply around in the Moyale, Dillo, Dirre, Teltelle and Arrero districts. In Dillo, the situation was so dire that families in five different areas evacuated their villages.

“The ponds are dry. The land is barren. There is nothing green,” said Tola. “People are desperate.”

In the dry, rural parts of Ethiopia people have long lived with periodic drought, and they have found ways to cope, such as by selling a few heads of healthy livestock and using the cash to buy food. But with droughts becoming increasingly frequent, there is little time—or no time—between them for families to recover their assets and build a new buffer against hardship. Instead, each bout of dry weather pushes many people deeper into poverty, making them more vulnerable to the next round of trouble.

“Drought is like fire,” said an Oromiya elder looking back on last year’s severe shortage of rain. “It just destroyed every household.”

Finding a new way to live

In the Liben district of Oromiya’s Guji Zone, the changes in weather patterns are pushing some herders to give up part of their old way of life—and turn to farming as a solution. Along the banks of the chocolaty Dawa River, Huka Balambal is growing onions and corn with the help of a small irrigation system he devised himself: A noisy pump connected to a long line of hose sucks water from the Dawa and spills it through a maze of muddy channels that Balambal has dug.

Tending solely to animals is what he had done all his life—until now. At 64, with no education and a large family to support, Balambal knew he had to do something different: the days of abundant milk from his cattle and plentiful grasses for them to feed on are gone. In the decades since he was a boy, the pastureland, and consequently the livestock, have declined, he said.

“I think, how can I survive this way?” Balambal asked. “How can I manage my family and care for my children. I look around and see the only solution is change of livelihood.”
Along another stretch of the Dawa, where Oxfam America is working with the Liben Pastoralist Development Association, or LPDA, to build a full-scale irrigation system for 200 families, Edo Godana voiced some of the same worry.

“During our father’s time it was very nice rain and a lot of milk and grass,” he said. “Now, things have totally changed. I’ve been trying to cultivate land by rain, and it frequently collapses. We have fear for our children. What’s going on?”

It’s a question that’s weighing on countless herders and rain-dependent farmers across Ethiopia as one difficult season gives way to the next. In the face of a changing climate, Oxfam has been working with people like Balmbal and Godana on longer-term solutions to the problems erratic weather creates. Pasture restoration, road construction, and helping people build small herds of milking goats are just some of the answers.

“Drought is a part of our lives,” said Kote Ibrahim, LPDA’s director. “How can we get out from it? We’ve reached consensus. We need sustainable development interventions.”
And, added Tola, the underlying causes of poverty, which make people so susceptible to drought, must also be addressed.

“Poor people need a voice,” said Tola. “Marginalized groups, like herders, need to be included in the development policies of the country. And women need an active role in development also.”

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