Drought in Ethiopia: 30 years later
How the onset of the worst famine since 1984 is currently affecting rural communities in and around Yabelo
‘Lower quality means less profit,’ Roba Adola tells me, flicking through a thin wad of well-thumbed notes and gesturing at the arid Ethiopian savannah around us.
‘Food and mouth disease has badly affected our livestock, driving down our profits. This year, I made 6000 birr (£200) less per camel than I did last year.’
Behind us, traders jostle brokers, darting between groups to identify their next purchase and haggling to secure a profitable sale. Markets such as these used to be big business in this part of Ethiopia.
The Borena, an agro-pastoralist tribe based in and around the town of Yabelo in the south of the country, rely heavily on the sale of their livestock to support their families.
A decrease in sales resulting from the uprisings in Egypt and further afield, coupled with the onset of diseases such as foot and mouth, mean traders are obliged to sell at lower cost, forcing families into deeper poverty.
The most severe drought for 30 years is is currently sweeping across Ethiopia. It has triggered prolonged dry spells, delaying the much sought-after rains that allow farmers to harvest their crops and leaving over 10 million people in immediate need of aid assistance.
‘We have to find a way to ration our animal feed during periods of drought,’ says Roba. ‘Managing our natural resources would help to prevent famine, like the one we saw in the 1980s.’
I visit Adegalchat, a kebele — or village — two hours’ drive from the nearest town. Avocado trees and coffee plantations are dotted along the road while the sweet smell of wild strawberries drifts in through the car windows.
On arrival, we meet Sanou, the village chief. He invites us to join him in the shade under an acacia tree, gently nudging a donkey aside.
‘When drought comes, we all suffer the same. These are the only periods when everyone — no matter how wealthy or poor — feels the same impact,’ he explains.
We discuss the ways in which his community have adapted their practices to counter the effects of their changing climate.
‘No matter how well we try to adapt, the rains don’t come. Our land dries, our livestock starve and our children weaken.’
Later that day, Kula Taro Wariyo invites us to her home for a lunch of spiced rice. Twenty people from the village gather in her dark, conical hut and tell us about the changes they have seen in their village in the past few years.
‘Even when the rain falls, it doesn’t bear any fruit. In the past, the rains were strong and the grass began to shoot up. Now, the ground dries immediately,’ Kula says, gesturing to the parched land outside her hut.
The following day, we drive out to Arero, 100km from Yabelo. I sit with a group of women and their babies and with beaming smiles they tell me my name means ‘Sugar King’ in the local vernacular.
Tume Yarco Deeda, 21, describes the impact drought has on women and girls:
‘We have to carry water, collect hay, prepare food for our family, look after our children — and that is only some of our tasks. Drought means we have to walk further to find food and water. Sometimes, we have to carry heavy jerrycans of water for hours at a time under the hot sun.’
I ask how they coped when they were pregnant with their children.
‘I know many women who have given birth on the way to get water. This is very dangerous for them.’
‘Drought has made our life miserable,’ she says. ‘As food is so scarce in my family, I skip dinner to let my younger sisters eat my share. The feeding programme now means I can regularly go to school and attend my classes.’
Drought has a severe and immediate impact on families such as these. Less trade means less money for food. No rain means longer journeys to find water, often on perilous routes. And no food or water means children are forced to leave school to help their mothers find these vital resources. Sometimes, the consequences are far worse.
Much more needs to be done, as millions of people survive each day on the edge of a humanitarian crisis. If we want to prevent history repeating itself, we need to act now, before it’s too late.