Oxfam works on solutions to help Ethiopians survive drought

At a cereal bank launched by the Center for Development Initiatives, an Oxfam partner, members show a sampling of the corn they have been able to save.

When asked about solutions to a drought that is gripping parts of Ethiopia and spreading hunger among millions of people, government officials tick off lists of broad ideas. In the Dire district of the Borena Zone, some answers include promoting natural resource management and encouraging the diversification of livestock herds so that people are not so dependent on cattle and can learn to work with more drought-resistant animals such as goats and camels.

The area used to experience drought once every eight years, giving communities time to recover in between. But since 2000, there have been five droughts, including the one this year. A plague of army worms in May also contributed to the trouble by destroying major areas of grazing land around Dire.

To help herders in the short term, Oxfam and its local partner, the Gayo Pastoralist Development Initiative, launched a program to provide veterinary services for nearly 400,000 animals in four districts in the Borena Zone—animals on which people depend for milk, meat, and income. By being treated for internal and external parasites, herds stand a better chance of remaining healthy during hard times like these. For poor herders with few resources to spare, the treatments, which cost about 2 birr, or 22 cents, per animal, are not something they would be able to afford on their own.

But already some herders have lost a good portion of their animals. One herder named Dida says 30 of his cows, 50 goats, and a camel died before the treatment program took place. Dida is not his real name. His name and the names of others interviewed for this story have been changed to protect their security.

On the day the program is held, Dida brings 30 camels and 21 cows for treatment. The father of 12, Dida says his family has been relying on relief food from the government and whatever they can find growing wild that is edible. Still, his meals mostly consist of a couple of cups of tea in the morning and a couple more in the evening.

"When the cattle are good and give milk, we drink milk any time," he says. But he hasn't seen that kind of sustenance in months. "The price of grain is very high. The cattle are not giving milk. The situation is very bad."

A few miles from the livestock treatment program, in a bramble-fenced olla, or small community, a young woman named Ansho nurses a child in the smoke-filled darkness of her hut. The child, small for two and with sores on one of her legs, is fussy with a fever and Ansho herself, worn out from hunger, yawns repeatedly as she tells visitors just how bad the situation has become in her olla. She lives in an area where no farming is allowed—a measure designed to preserve the local land for pasture. Outside her hut, the ground is hard as cement and ash gray. A calf, more bones than flesh, totters by.

"We can not afford to buy even one kilogram of maize from the market because of the high price," says Ansho, whose family recently received a small amount of relief wheat. "Many people would die if they didn't receive this relief food."

Saving cereal

In a West Arsi Zone community a half a day's drive north, where hope is resting on the shoots of new corn now rising from the fields, another potential solution to long-term problems of hunger and drought has given some people a cushion against these bad times. It's a cereal bank—a way for villagers to join together and save their hard-won harvests for a while, allowing them to get better prices and re-invest some of the extra cash they earn into projects that will benefit them all.

Now in its third year, the cereal bank is one of 10 constructed with the help of the Center for Development Initiatives, a local Oxfam partner. A simple storage building with light blue trim and a metal roof, the bank has earned its 167 members a combined profit of 70,000 birr, or $7,425, this year, a small fortune in a region where so many people have virtually nothing. On top of that, the bank still has 300 quintals of corn stored in sacks heaped almost to the ceiling—a buffer against the hunger that is now stalking many members of the community.

"We have a stock in our bank and our members are not starving like other people," says a store keeper for the cereal bank. "Thanks to CDI, it has shown us the way, and it's our responsibility to step forward. Our experience in the last three years has shown us we can make big progress in our lives."

But this year, with hunger so rampant, the stored grain is also presenting the bank with a moral dilemma: Do members restrict its use to themselves only or share it, through sales, with the broader local community?

"We are confused," admits the store keeper, and fearful, too, about the future.

Like everyone in this region, cereal bank members are facing the same weather-related challenges to their success in the fields. If the rain isn't regular, and sufficient, the crops won't grow—threatening an even deeper hunger in the months ahead.

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