Drought Conditions in Ethiopia Prompt Feeding Program

Drought in Adigrat, Ethiopia, driven by climate change, is making it challenging for children and youth to attend school due to hunger, thirst and exhaustion. A CNEWA-funded feeding program is working to keep children in schools by providing biscuits and food supplies to schools in Adigrat. This Earth Day, read about the direct impact of climate change on young people in CNEWA’s world, and how CNEWA is responding to their needs.

In Adigrat, a city in Ethiopia’s northernmost region of Tigray, hunger rules and the scars of conflict remain indelibly marked.

Even as its people continue to recover from the violence of the 2020-2022 civil war between the Tigray People’s Liberation Front and Ethiopia’s government forces, Adigrat confronts a severe drought after last summer’s rains, or kiremt, failed to materialize.

The lack of precipitation has jeopardized this year’s harvest, the products of which feed up to 80 percent of the region’s population, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). The office reported in January 2024 that some 1.4 million people “need immediate emergency food because of the drought.”

The U.N. office attributes the changes in weather patterns in Tigray to the 2023-2024 El Niño, a climate condition associated with the ocean’s surface warming in the central and eastern zones of the Pacific Ocean, according to the World Meteorological Organization (W.M.O). The patterns of this phenomenon, although recurring, “take place in the context of a climate being changed by human activities,” the W.M.O reports.

“Climate change impact is also affecting other areas,” said Argaw Fantu, CNEWA’s regional director for Ethiopia, who notes irregular rain patterns in other parts of the country. The southwestern and central highland regions of Ethiopia, for example, are experiencing increased rainfall and flooding, he said.

“Before, for instance, in Addis Ababa, those seasonal changes were regular,” he said. Now the irregularity of rainfall means “the rainy season either comes earlier or later or very heavy or no rain.”

The consequences in the mountainous Tigray region have been devastating, particularly for students and children.

According to Daniel Zigta, education coordinator for the Ethiopian Catholic Eparchy of Adigrat, the civil war prevented the region’s entire student population of 2.4 million from attending school. Only 40 percent have returned, he said, citing the Tigray Education Bureau’s most recent report.

“After two years of war, when the guns were silenced, children were very happy to go back to school,” said Mr. Fantu. “But they didn’t have anything to eat.”

Many students walk for hours over mountainous terrain to attend school, so the shortages of food, water and educational resources make it difficult for children and teens to prioritize their education.

“Culturally, they have been worried about the care and support of their families at home,” Mr. Zigta said of the students. “But they get tired, become weak, since they travel long distances with insufficient food.”

Mr. Fantu traveled to Adigrat in February to visit schools benefiting from CNEWA’s feeding program, which provides high-calorie biscuits to more than 8,000 students and 450 teachers from 25 Catholic and 24 public schools in the area.

Argaw Fantu, CNEWA’s regional director for Ethiopia, helps distribute biscuits to children at Sebeya Holy Trinity Catholic School in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, February 2024. (photo: CNEWA Ethiopia)

Because of the drought and a shortage of educational materials, “there is a fear that more than 200,000 children will drop out of school,” said Mr. Fantu. This fear exacerbates an already troubling situation in which students in the region have faced years of interruption in school, beginning with the Coronavirus pandemic, the civil war — which killed more than 1,900 students, about 1,700 of whom were girls, according to the Tigray Education Bureau — and now, drought.

Schools remain closed for three years, reopening only in April 2023, said Mr. Zigta. Much of the region’s infrastructure remains damaged from the war, with “88 percent of educational institutions … either fully or partially damaged.” Additionally, as of January 2024, 105 schools sheltered thousands of internally displaced persons, according to OCHA.

Mr. Fantu said the drought poses a particular concern for teenagers, who are dropping out of school to migrate, placing them at an increased risk of human trafficking and other dangers.

Students from Sebeya Catholic School in Ethiopia’s Tigray region receive biscuits from CNEWA, February 2024. (photo: CNEWA Ethiopia)

Teenagers and young adults, he said, “sometimes feel hopeless. Because now, after the war in that area, everything is just destroyed.” He noted that businesses and factories, where youth would typically find job opportunities, have closed after the war and have not reopened due to damages.

“I heard from some of the young people that instead of dying with hunger, they prefer to die in the desert [in an effort to leave the country],” he said.

Despite an increase in student dropouts, however, CNEWA’s food distribution program is encouraging children and youth to return to school. School administrators have already seen the program make a difference. One administrator reported 300 students returned when CNEWA’s food program began, said Mr. Zigta.

“Student dropouts, absenteeism, loss of attention has decreased, and the performance of students has increased,” he said, citing feedback from participating schools.

CNEWA also funds a food program across 35 parishes in the Eparchy of Adigrat, which benefits about 5,000 children and youth.

“They express their … deepest gratitude to have this kind of support,” said Mr. Fantu. “You can see a sign of hope and happiness on their faces.”

To support CNEWA’s feeding programs, such as those in Ethiopia, click here.

Olivia Poust is assistant editor of ONE.

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