El Niño: “Everything has changed”
People of north-eastern Ethiopia say they have never experienced conditions as extreme as the current drought caused by El Niño.
The global weather phenomenon known as “El Niño” is expected this year to be one of the strongest on record, affecting rain patterns, temperatures and food production across the world. In Ethiopia, an estimated 8.2 million people are in need of immediate food assistance.
Afar National Regional State is a state in north-east Ethiopia, and the homeland of the Afar pastoralists. One of the hottest places on Earth, temperatures can soar as high as 50 degrees Celsius. Normally, Afar has one major rainy season lasting from June to September, and less heavy rains in December and from March through April.
This year, the rains never came. Rivers have all but dried up, the groundwater level is extremely low and there is too little grass growing for livestock to graze.
Towards the end of August I visited my CARE colleagues in Ethiopia, including a stop in Dewe, in the Afar state, to visit a project called Partners for Resilience (PfR). Naturally, I was aware that rain had once again failed to fall in the region, but it wasn't until I saw with my own eyes what an impact this is having on the population that I truly understood how dire the situation is.
“We need aid”
In Dewe, CARE is providing assistance through our local partner organisation Support for Sustainable Development (SSD). Community workers from SSD live and work among the population in Dewe and have built up strong ties with both project participants and the local authorities.
During our meeting with the local administrator, we learned that the PfR project recently received an extremely positive evaluation from the local authorities. They have noted a very evident difference between PfR beneficiaries and people not receiving any NGO support, as attested by their resilience in the face of the drought.
Yet it is also becoming clear that no project is proof against a drought of this magnitude. Despite the fact that PfR participants have amassed larger reserves that can tide them over a bit longer – and even allow them to help out other families, these reserves are now dwindling too. And women's groups that had been making good progress in recent years through their participation in Village Savings and Loan Associations (VSLAs) are now also running into problems. The land that they lately began cultivating, planting crops like maize and sorghum, has been rendered infertile by drought. Goats and cows have been weakened to the extent that they no longer produce milk, and many have already died.
“We need aid, and we need it very soon” says a local administrator. “I am afraid that without interventions, people will die as well. Livestock feed is desperately needed, and to be honest communities are already in need of food aid too.”
“Everything has changed”
Driving and walking through Dewe is like passing through an animal graveyard – truly a terrible sight. Not only cows and sheep are dying in droves, but by this point so are goats, donkeys and even camels. The animals you do still see walking around are skin and bones.
One woman we talked to, Halima Galeli, a single mother with five children, says she has already lost sixteen cows in the last three months, and she has little hope for the four she has left. They are emaciated and no longer producing milk.
“Sixteen of my cows have died. It won't be long before the others go too. Unless God does something to stop it, I will soon follow myself” says Halima.
Adem Mohammed Ibed shares a similar story. He had only just arrived in the town of Dewe with his family and their ten remaining cows, trying to get away from the tragedy. Having lost thirty cows in a short space of time, he feels hopeless. Never before in his life, he says, has he encountered conditions so extreme.
“Never in my life have I experienced a drought like this, and we did not get any warning. Everything has changed. Rain does not come as it used to. And our traditional early warning systems are no longer accurate”.
Halima and Adem say that if they'd known the rains would fail to come again this year, they would have taken precautions steps and sold some of their livestock. Now it's too late.
Cows, goats, sheep, donkeys and camels are dying in huge numbers, and those remaining are no more than skin and bones. The people of Afar depend on the milk of cows, goats and camels for sustenance, as well as on the income they get from selling livestock and products like milk, butter, yoghurt and cheese. With the current shortage of feed and water, most of the animals left are no longer producing milk, which means children, mothers, elderly and indeed entire communities are now in danger.
Though the population of Afar mainly live off their livestock, recent years have seen them become increasingly involved in farming too. Agricultural initiatives were made possible in part through small-scale irrigation projects set up around rivers in the region. Yet, with water levels inching ever lower, and some riverbeds even completely dry, agricultural production has now also stagnated.
In short, the Afar people can no longer cultivate enough food on their own to survive. Add the high price of grain, low market price of livestock and lack of alternative income sources, and poor households are simply no longer able to feed themselves.
To make matters worse, weather prognoses offer no sign of relief. The real dry season does not actually start until October, and all indicators – including the most recent meteorological updates on El Niño – point to a continuation of this situation up into 2016. Emergency aid is urgently needed to keep the remaining livestock from dying and to prevent the people who are so dependent on these animals for their food from starving.
The government of Ethiopia is coordinating the response and recently allocated 192 million dollars to support affected communities, but the magnitude of the impact means significant international support will be needed.
What is CARE doing?
CARE is currently supporting around 300,000 people in Ethiopia with food aid, assisting over 37,000 children and mothers affected by malnutrition, rehabilitating water points and enabling 20,000 people access safe drinking water in the current drought. CARE is also preparing to scale up assistance to over 500,000 people in the coming months. The goal of CARE’s 2015 emergency response is to meet the immediate needs of the most vulnerable populations - especially women and girls - affected by drought. It aims to support the recovery of affected communities during the next successful harvest season and to build long term resilience to future droughts.
In addition to responding to the current drought, CARE and our partner organizations are continuing to work on building the resilience of affected communities and reduce their vulnerability to the impact of recurrent droughts and disasters. Many of CARE’s projects work to create a more conducive environment for achieving sustained food security of chronically food insecure (CFI) men, women and households.
Initiatives such as capacity building and training to increase household income, facilitation of loans and the establishment of Village Savings and Loans Associations (VSLA) are all key CARE activities that help communities pull themselves out of poverty. In view of achieving CARE Ethiopia’s aim of supporting chronically food insecure women, women only VSLAs have been helping many women to make collective investments and engage in income generating activities, strengthening their role in the economy and in decision-making.