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Analysis: Drought hits Ethiopia again but climate change not only culprit

Kedir Ibrahim and Fatima Siraj along with their children

By Bileh Jelan @BilehJelan

East Bale – “People are in trouble down here, all the way from Darako up to Sawwena, they have left their homes to find better pasture and water sources,” Aliyi Sheik Osman told Addis Standard. A resident of Rayitu woreda, in east Bale zone, Oromia regional state, Aliyi says “there is nothing there and what the government is doing is not enough, imagine demanding water and getting less than 10 liters of it. The food they provide is not sufficient and can’t hold a family, which happens to be large in these areas, until the end of any given month.”

Aliyi is just one of the dozens of residents Addis Standard spoke to during an assignment trip to East Bale zone.

But the climate-induced drought is not the only culprit ravaging the communities down there. Multiple accounts from eyewitnesses who spoke with Addis Standard reveal marginalization, poor governance and corruption are exacerbating the already dire situation.  

“There is nothing there and what the government is doing is not enough, imagine demanding water and getting less than 10 liters of it. The food they provide is not sufficient and can’t hold a family, which happens to be large in these areas, until the end of any given month.”

Aliyi resident of Rayitu woreda, in east Bale zone

Among a dozen interviewees Addis Standard was able to capture, the story of Fatima Siraj, 28, and a mother of two, is one that speaks to the government’s neglect to the crisis. Fatima is originally from Eglo. Her husband was arrested in the wave of massive government crackdown that swept Oromia in the aftermath of the assassination of famous Oromo artist Hachalu Hundessa on 29 June 2020. Regardless of her own ordeal. Fatima, like many other women in the area, took on the sole responsibilities of taking care of orphans in her community whose parents have either died of the drought or conflict for scarce resources between pastoralist communities.

Recalling the circumstances that brought her to Sawwena, Fatima said: “We own a small piece of land that my husband and I used to farm and earn a living from. But since my husband was arrested two years ago and the rain started to gradually fall short, I couldn’t do much to carry on the work of the farm alone, and I couldn’t find water anywhere since water sources like seasonal rivers and lakes started to dry up.”

“Please do not get me started on that. We ask Allah to bless us with rain so we can go back to our areas and stop asking them (Oromia Regional Government) for anything. They didn’t do so much for us all these years. Why would we expect them to do so now?”

Fatima, displaced to Sawwena from Eglo

Fatima took her two children and four other orphaned kids she she is taking care of from her area and left for Sawwena on foot, a 30 km walk. “Imagine walking around with six children, in an empty and dusty road, fearing for your life all along. Thankfully someone who had a truck saw me and gave me a ride to Sawwena,” she recalled her arduous journey. When asked about the reason she came to Sawwena, Fatima said, “Because we were told that this is where they distribute aid. I was able to leave with these children but many are stuck in the dire situation which you might have heard of.”

Discussing the aid provided by the regional government, Fatima said, “Please do not get me started on that. We ask Allah to bless us with rain so we can go back to our areas and stop asking them (Oromia Regional Government) for anything. They didn’t do so much for us all these years. Why would we expect them to do so now?”

The worst in decades

For decades, food insecurity has been leaving a trail bitter impact predominantly during the dry seasons of the Horn of Africa, where drought prevails year after year, devastating millions in the wake severe lack of food and water.

Way before it recovers from the ravages of desert locust infestation since April 2020, the 2021 drought that hit the Horn of Africa is classified as the worst drought in decades leaving millions in parts of Ethiopia, Kenya, and Somalia between life and death.

According to the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET), the Horn of Africa region is facing the third consecutive below-average rainfall season since late 2020, which is expected to intensify the ongoing drought and significantly worsen food insecurity through at least mid-2022. Multiple regional and global forecast models concur that October to December 2022 rainfall will be below average, primarily due to negative Indian Ocean Dipole and La Niña conditions.

Data from FEWS NET further illustrates that research on historical climate patterns suggest elevated chances of a fourth consecutive below-average rainfall season from March to May 2022. The region last witnessed a four-season drought in 2016/2017, which led to severe acute food insecurity in the eastern Horn.

Currently, up to 20 million people in Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, and Uganda will need food assistance through mid-2022 due not only to the impacts of drought, but also conflict, insecurity, and economic challenges, including the complex humanitarian emergency in northern Ethiopia.

Similarly, report by Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) underlines that droughts in the Horn of Africa have been increasing in severity and frequency, aggravated by climate change, desertification, and land degradation. The prolonged drought and its impact in Ethiopia, however, is exacerbated by the current security and economic crisis that consumed much of the government’s attention. The crisis is further compounded by unsuccessful agricultural strategies that could not yet serve to ensure food security or improved water accessibility to areas affected by scarcity of rain predominantly in Oromia and Somali regions.

How bad is Ethiopia hit?

A recent report revealed a shocking number of more than a million livestock that perished in the Somali regional state alone, one of the worst hit regions in the country. (According to the U.N., Oromia. Somali,South West and Southern Nations, Nationalities and People’s (SNNP) are the most devastated regional state in Ethiopia.)  

Early data shows more than 70, 000 livestock have died in eastern Ethiopia alone, while wildlife that survived are increasingly migrating in search of pastor and water.  

Addis Standard online has been providing a series of coverage on drought hit areas in both Oromia and Somali regions. Residents of both regions complain of lack of proper response and in the Borana zone of the Oromia region went as far as accusing the regional government of exacerbating the effects of the drought. Something a local official at the time admitted to.

Now, it is getting worse. According to a report released by the UNOCHA on 07 February 2022: “The drought is compromising fragile livelihoods heavily reliant on livestock and causing a worsening food security and nutrition while eroding coping strategies for the most vulnerable.”

“The drought is compromising fragile livelihoods heavily reliant on livestock and causing a worsening food security and nutrition while eroding coping strategies for the most vulnerable.”

UNOCHA

The number of livestock dying from lack of food and water is staggering and increasing by the day. The U.N. says the high number of livestock deaths is an “important indicator” of this alarming situation. The numbers reported by January 2022 have by far exceeded the estimates from 2021, and U.N.’s estimate indicates that additional two million livestock is at risk across affected areas.

Whereas the drought’s devastating impact is visible in the trail of corpses of livestock it is leaving behind from Somali to Oromia to SNNP, multiple data by U.N. organizations and FEWS NET show that more than 6.8 million people across the drought-affected areas in Ethiopia are in dire need of humanitarian assistance.

It is not just the climate-induced drought

Both regional and federal governments claim that they are coordinating sufficient responses to mitigate the impacts of the drought. But several residents of affected areas where Addis Standard traveled to say that they are not getting the support they need.

The Mouth of the Wabi River, now dry

East Bale zone is hit hard by the drought this year than it ever experienced in decades; the drought was a result of a shortage in rainfall over the course of three rainy seasons. As a result, thousands of people were displaced or are living in critical conditions where the threat of starvation is looming, while thousands of livestock have already perished.

The East Bale zone neighbors the Somali region and has access roads via the Ginnir-Imi route. With the exception of Ginnir woreda, all woredas in the zone are affected by the drought. This is due to their geographic location as lowlands and their proximity to the Somali region. Seasonal rivers have dried up including the major Wabi river (a different seasonal river not to be confused with the Wabe river), and farmlands went dry as the absence of water threatens to worsen the situation.

Aliy, the man quoted in the start of this story, has lost all that he has. But he is not the only one. Kedir Ibrahim, 48, did too. “I came from Katta, I left because of the drought and because they told us there were better opportunities in Sawwena,” Kedir says. “I lost all my cattle, all 25 of them. We asked the government two rainy seasons ago to install water projects to help us as many [of us] predicted the drought but they did not listen to us.”

Dead and Decomposed cattle in Sawwena

The government is now distributing one kilo of wheat flour, one kilo of Teff and some water “that doesn’t even come to 20 liters and expect us to lead a normal life,” he says, “I have a family of four, how is that even possible?”

Jamal Mohammed and Kedir Adam, 40 and 41, respectively, are both from rural areas in Rayitu woreda and were able to reach Sawwena in their desperate attempts to go to Bale-Robe, where the rainfall was modest and opportunities for work in farming are still available. They both complained about the hindering of aid and the government belittling the zone’s residents’ concerns over the years.

“The aid that is coming from the outside world and especially the Muslim countries are sufficient alongside the budget that they allocated for response to drought but somewhere in the chain of command, someone steals something and it trickles down until nothing is left for those in need,” Jamal said.  

He was struggling to contain his tears when he said: “This area, the land you stand on is known as the land of Milk and Honey. This can only happen if your government doesn’t listen to you. We asked them to build water projects to harvest the rain, dig wells and build dams.”

“The aid that is coming from the outside world and especially the Muslim countries are sufficient alongside the budget that they allocated for response to drought but somewhere in the chain of command, someone steals something and it trickles down until nothing is left for those in need”

Jamal, displaced from Rayitu woreda to Sawwena

Before the drought struck him, his family, and the community around, Jamal was one of the wealthiest men in Rayitu, with over 120 in cattle head. Now, he said that the continued suffering with water shortage forced him to sell all his cattle. He is planning to leave all that he had, and resettle in Bale-Robe with his wife and children.

Jamal and hundreds more are in for a protracted hardship through 2022. FEWS NET warned that with multi-year drought again likely in 2021/2022, food and income losses – with the potential for crop failure and excess livestock mortality – will likely be substantial.

No one understand the gravity of this than the family of Abdulnasir Abdullahi, 37, who is originally from the town of Lakko. Addis Standard visited his farm, which is now a dry land due to his inability to find water to cultivate anything. But Abdulnasir refuses to leave. “This is where I was born, got married and lived for all of my life. I will never leave.”

Abdulnasir Abdullahi’s farm which turned into dryland

His suffering, like all others’, is exacerbated by the lack of proper response from the regional government and the disregard for elders’ advice to build water projects to harvest the rain. “I have 10 children and a wife and as you can see my farmland is depleted and I don’t think I will be able to farm on it for the coming season. Water is not reaching us here in Lakko and is only reaching Sawwena town which is 27 km from here.”

Communities there for each other

The U.N. warned that the drought is worsening food insecurity and malnutrition, even as pastoralists are forced to walk and travel longer distances in search of water and pasture. “The surviving animals in the drought-affected areas are very weak and emaciated producing little or no milk, thus jeopardizing the availability of the main source of nutrition for children”

But Abdulnasir would rather depend on his community to survive, even when they have no source of income, than having hopes for an adequate response from the government. “We have a very strong community down here, people help each other, those who have more than others, share.”

Sheik Abdulhakim Waliyi, who is a community leader and a wealthy businessman is trying to provide help to the community in Sawwena woreda in collaboration with different NGOs. When explaining the severity of the drought and its impact on his community, Sheik Abdulhakim said: “The [exact] number of people displaced is not known as are the number of people deeply affected by this drought.” According to him, “prices of basic goods are going up by the day, the inflation is uncontrolled. All this is happening while the price for cattle is going down as they are weak and affected by the lack of water and pasture.”

“The [exact] number of people displaced is not known as are the number of people deeply affected by this drought.”

Sheik Abdulhakim, Community leader

Like everyone who spoke with Addis Standard, Sheik Abdulhakim also complained about the lack of government response. “They don’t bring enough water and they only bring water by the week. There are areas where water doesn’t even reach because there are no roads,” he lamented, “if you look at the regional government assistance at face value, it should be sufficient, but it is not; besides they situate assistance in major towns of the zone where most people can not afford to come to.”

Sheik Abdulhakim says that “divine intervention” is what most people hope for and could be a solution but added, “The government should stop the hindering of aid sent to the affected areas,” he added, “It does not reach the people in need because of these corrupt officials.”

In Sawwena, plenty of community leaders provide assistance to the less fortunate  but unlike Sheik Abdulhakim who is doing the assistance with the help of local NGOs, Mohammed Guto is hosting 40 people displaced from all over Sawwena woreda and providing for them from his own pocket. Mohammed’s testimony adds up to all others about the hindering aid by and lack of proper assistance from the regional government.

“The government should stop the hindering of aid sent to the affected areas, It does not reach the people in need because of these corrupt officials.”

Sheik Abdulhakim, Community leader

Mohammed believes “this is an attempt to break the spirit of the people in East Bale.” He asks back with disdain “explain to me how officials from our region donated money and cattle to Amhara and Somali regions when people are dying of hunger in East Bale, in Borana and in Hararghe zones in Oromia? How can they play politics with our lives that way?”

Government says otherwise

But despite all these testimonies, Aliyi Kedir, who is appointed by the Sawwena woreda administration as the head of the committee to address the drought response, disagrees with both Sheik Abdulhakim, Mohammed Guto, and multiple others who complained of corruption and accused the regional government of disrupting aid delivery.

He argued that the worsening of the situation is due to the shortage of resources by the regional government as well as the woreda administration; it is the reason behind many not receiving sufficient aid. “At least 102 households come to us asking for assistance each day, we can’t provide them with the help needed, due to the insufficiency of aid.”

Water Trucks lining up to leave Sawwena town after emptying their load

Contradicting witnesses’ testimonies he said, “We are providing them with water on a daily basis, food aid is coming on a weekly basis and cattle feed is being distributed on a weekly basis as well.”

But Aliyi admitted that “from December last year until now 30,000 cattle have died in Sawwena district alone. Imagine how many cattle died in East Bale all together?” he ponders. When asked if there were human casualties, he answered, “not that I am aware of.”

When asked about the regional government’s plans to prevent future happenings, He said, “The community has been asking for water projects and this is what we are working on. We are going to build water projects with the aim of harvesting rain.”

“This is an attempt to break the spirit of the people in East Bale. Explain to me how officials from our region donated money and cattle to Amhara and Somali regions when people are dying of hunger in East Bale, in Borana and in Hararghe zones in Oromia? How can they play politics with our lives that way?”

Mohammed Guto, Volunteer

The situation in Sawwena and the rest of the East Bale zone is exacerbated by the absence of access roads, health care centers, and other basic services. Residents of the zone have long complained of being left alone despite the regional government’s repeated promises to address their complaints, but with nothing to show but failure under successive governments.

Officials at both the administration of the East Bale zone and the zone’s disaster risk management bureau declined to speak to Addis Standard, and gave no explanation for their refusals. AS


Editior’s note: This article was previously published on March, 2022 edition of Addis Standard’s print magazine.

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