Ethiopia’s terrible drought pushing nomadic herders to the brink

By James Jeffrey

Dead camels rot on the outskirts of informal settlements in Ethiopia’s rain-starved Somali region as their owners, once self-sufficient pastoralists, turn
to government aid to stay alive.

Ethiopia is facing a drought so terrible that nomadic herders, the hardiest of
survivors, have been pushed to the brink.

The lucky ones receive supplies of food and brackish water, but the majority, who have settled in spontaneous camps in the remotest reaches, must look after themselves.

“We call this drought Sima,” said 82 -year-old Abdu Karim. “It means ‘everyone
is affected’. Even when I was a child, no one spoke of a drought like this one.”

Across the Horn of Africa, people are struggling after three successive years of
failed rains. In Somalia and Yemen, there is real fear of famine.

While Ethiopia’s remote southern region has been spared the warfare that is confronting its neighbours, the drought has been no less brutal.

“Having lost most of their livestock, they have also spent out the money they had in reserve to try to keep their last few animals alive,” said Charlie Mason, humanitarian director at Save the Children. “For those who have lost everything, all they can now do is go to a government assistance site for food and water.”

Livestock are the backbone of the region’s economy. Pastoralists here are
estimated to have lost in excess of $200 million-worth of cattle, sheep, goats, and camels.

That is not only a blow to their wealth, but also deprives them of the meat and milk that is the mainstay of the pastoralist life-support system.

Last year, more than 10 million people were affected by an El Niño-induced
drought. The government spent an unprecedented $700 million, while the
international community made up the rest of the $1.8 billion needed to meet their needs.

This year, the appeal is for $948 million to help 5.6 million drought-affected people, mainly in the southern and eastern parts of the country. So far, only $23.7 million has been received.

“Last year’s response by the government was pretty remarkable,” said World Vision’s Ethiopia director, Edward Brown. “We dodged a bullet. But now the funding gaps are larger on both sides. The UN’s ability is constrained as it looks for big donors – you’ve already got the US talking of slashing foreign aid.”

The government has a well established safety net program managed by the World Bank that supports the food insecure. But it doesn’t pick up those affected by sudden shocks like the current drought.

They fall under a new program, which is struggling to register all those in need. There are 58 settlements for the internally displaced in the Somali region currently receiving government aid.

But that’s only a fraction of the 222 sites containing nearly 400,000 displaced people identified in a survey by the International Organization for Migration.

Forty-four percent of these camps reported no access to food, and only 31 percent had a water source within a 20-minute walk.

“People were surviving from what they could forage to eat or sell but now there is nothing left,” said one senior aid worker who visited a settlement 70 kilometres east of the southern town of Dolo Ado, where 650 displaced pastoralist families weren’t receiving any aid at all.

The only livestock left alive in the camp was one skinny cow, its rib cage
undulating through its skin, and her new-born calf. In some shelters people were reported as too weak to move.

Informal settlements have sprung up wherever the exhausted pastoralists have
stopped. The further away from the regional capital, Jijiga, the less likely they are to be supplied by the government.

There is also a degree of friction between the federal government and the regional authority.

“There’s a logical reason to limiting the number of temporary assistance sites –
because otherwise getting assistance to people scattered over such a large area
becomes a massive challenge,” said Mason.

“The authorities are doing their best. This is a natural disaster, which has
affected a huge number of people over an area larger than the UK or New Zealand, and we’re in a race against the clock to get enough food and clean water to enough people in time.”

But given the security restrictions on travel in the Somali region, and the
nervousness aid agencies have over antagonising the government, it is very hard
to gauge how many people may have fallen through the cracks and are not receiving assistance.


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