The different shapes of drought


Even though the fields of East Haraghe look green, the area has been gripped by a drought due to insufficient rainy seasons.

By Sandra Bulling

Green plots of land cover the lush mountains of East Haraghe in Ethiopia. Small brown huts dot the landscape, their owners busy working in the fields. Thick grey clouds hang above the peaks as high as 3,000 meters, seemingly bursting with rain any moment. On a first look, East Haraghe looks like postcard idyll, perfectly suited for agriculture that yields enough crops to sustain the farming families. On a second, the area is the scene of a severe drought. Malnutrition cases East and West Haraghe zones increased steeply in the past months. The reasons: insufficient rainy seasons, high food prices, chronic poverty and a weather phenomenon called La Nina.

The large majority of Ethiopian households, 87 percent, relies on agriculture as source of income and nutrition. A good rainy season brings relief, a failed one desperation. The past twelve months were determined by worry; the Meher rains that usually arrive from June to September in East Haraghe ceased prematurely last year. As a consequence, the complete harvest was lost. The following Belg rains which are scheduled by nature from March to May were delayed for about two months, insufficient in amount and erratic in distribution. For many farmers it was impossible to plant; and those who did are still waiting for their maize to ripen. One month ago, in June, farmer would have normally started to harvest. But instead, people have no food left in their homes. Scientists credit the insufficient rains to La Nina, a weather phenomenon that changes weather patterns and causes drier conditions in East Africa.

Maize porridge, twice a day

Kado Kaso came with her son Sabona to a government run health center in Kurf Chele district. “My son was vomiting, he had diarrhea and could not hold any of the food I fed him’, she says. Sabona was diagnosed as severely malnourished. The three year old has lost his appetite. His feet, legs and eye lids are swollen – characteristic signs of edema, a medical complication of severe malnutrition. He stares into the room, there is no energy left in the little body to play or move around. Sabona arrived one day ago and the therapeutic food provided by CARE has not regained his energy yet.

When the Belg rains began this spring, Kado started to plant barley and beans on her small land. But the rains stopped earlier and all her crops withered. “We have barely anything to eat. During normal years, we eat three meals a day. Now we are lucky if we eat twice a day,’ the 30 years old mother says. She takes Sabona into her arms. “We only eat maize porridge, I cannot afford anything else.’

On the bed next to Kado sits Abdi Mahommed with his five year old daughter Milkiya. She has been here for one week, has recovered her strength and appetite. Both father and daughter will leave the center the next day. They will continue receiving weekly rations of therapeutic food, to ensure Milkiya”s condition stays stable. But Abdi has sold his ox to buy food for his family of eight. “I don”t know how to plant for the next season, I have no ox and no seeds,’ he says. He is glad his daughter has regained her appetite and started playing again. “All that matters is saving my daughter”s life.’

Searching for labor

Kado”s husband has moved to the nearest town in search of work. But he is not alone. Fathers stream into the towns offering their labor – and salaries have dropped by 50 percent. “My husband now earns 10 Birr a day, in normal years he can earn 20 Birr’, says Kado. Ten Birr are USD 0.60; and that is how much a kilo of maize costs. A price, that has risen significantly over the past months. “My husband comes back every four days, giving me money to buy food. My four children and I are dependent on him, we have no other income.’ She now stays with Sabona in the health center, until the little boy can eat again and reaches a stable condition.

Kado”s other children are at home, alone. Neighbors look after them, but they have no meals to share either. And the health center has run out of resources to hand out food to mothers like Kado coming to stay with their children. “CARE is now starting to provide food for the mothers in the health centers. Because if they don”t get anything to eat, they might be forced to leave or refrain from coming here with their malnourished children,’ says Jundi Ahmed, CARE Ethiopia”s Emergency Nutrition Advisor.

A malnourished generation

Today, almost every tenth pregnant woman or lactating mother in East Haraghe is malnourished due to the insufficient rainy seasons. However, malnutrition is a chronic condition for many Ethiopians. Even during years with normal rainfall, the small plots owned by households in East Haraghe do not yield enough to cater for balanced and sufficient meals. Malnourishment during pregnancy determines the entire life of a child. Sons and daughters, who do not receive sufficient nutrition in the first five years of their life will not fully develop their mental and physical capabilities. “It is a chronic hunger cycle that can last for generations. Malnourished mothers give birth to malnourished children and have no means to feed them with most needed vitamins, iodine and iron. Children are smaller in height than well-fed children their age, they are stunted. And it is very likely that they will also have malnourished children,’ says Jundi Ahmed.

CARE started food distributions to reach 66,000 people in the zones of East and West Haraghe and Afar. Kado”s family and others in her district receive monthly rations of sorghum, vegetable oil, supplementary food such as corn-soy-blend and beans whereas pregnant mothers and lactating women get special supplementary food. But CARE also has long term development programs in the area, supporting families to overcome poverty and hunger. Through Village Savings and Loan Associations, for example, women can contract small loans to open shops and small businesses. With an additional income families can save assets that protect them in times of drought.

Drought comes in different shapes in Ethiopia. But whether in the dry areas of Borena in southern Ethiopia or the lush green mountains of East Haraghe – the pain and consequences of drought and hunger are the same throughout.

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