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When Rain Fails

Ethiopians seek solutions to the worst drought in decades

As 9-month-old Aixet rests in her mother’s arms, Nurse Elsa Aduma wraps a special measuring tape marked in red, yellow and green around her tiny upper arm. Aixet’s eyes move quizzically from the tape to the nurse as Ms. Aduma reads out the measurement: three and three-quarters inches — in the red zone, meaning Aixet qualifies as severely malnourished.

“I haven’t enough milk,” says 32-year-old mother Amete Kahsay. “There’s not enough food in the house for me to eat properly.”

Though the clinic does not provide food supplements, the 40-year-old nurse refers her to one that may be able to help.

Operated by the Daughters of St. Anne, the health clinic in the town of Idaga Hamus sits just off the main road about 12 miles south of Adigrat, the second-largest city in Ethiopia’s northernmost region of Tigray. The dramatic scenery of Tigray — cliffs, gorges and flat-topped mesas beneath bright light-blue skies — is where Christianity took root in Ethiopia around the fourth century, its roots holding firm even as surrounding countries embraced Islam after the seventh century.

But the region’s stark beauty is tied to an arid climate. Ethiopia’s reputation as “the water tower of Africa” is due largely to its central highlands to the south. In contrast, the northeastern highlands, which include Tigray, have long endured inconsistent rainy seasons. This year stands as one of the worst for rainfall in living memory as the El Niño cycle results in unusually heavy rains in some parts of the world and drought elsewhere. Many in the region declare the current situation more severe than 1984, when drought conditions triggered a famine that led to the deaths of more than a million Ethiopians.

Yet the clinic is not inundated with malnourished children. Aixet is, for now, in the minority.

While images of the 1984 famine came to stigmatize Ethiopia for decades, the nation has taken steps to remedy this situation. In particular, in 2005, the government established the Productive Safety Net Program (P.S.N.P.), a welfare-for-work initiative that enables about six million people to work on public infrastructure projects, such as digging irrigation canals or building terraces for crops, for food or cash. P.S.N.P. also includes measures such as a national food reserve and early warning systems throughout woredas, local administrative organizations.

Such efforts have seen some success. Since 1990, child mortality in Ethiopia has fallen from about 20 percent to 5.9 percent. Nevertheless, some 40 percent of Ethiopian children suffer from malnutrition, hampering growth. Today, an imminent crisis remains a distinct possibility.

When initially faced with drought, Ethiopian minsters worked to contain the situation. The nation had already committed $192 million to drought-relief efforts. Further assistance from donor-supported social welfare systems was also promised. Before long, however, the estimated number of those affected had doubled to more than 8 million people — requiring an appeal for outside help. But precious time has been lost, and fundraising efforts are playing catch-up, further hampered by legal hurdles. Thus clinics, such as the one operated by the Daughters of St. Anne in Idaga Hamus, still wait for donor support.

“We really feel guilty when we see what we are supposed to do but can’t because of lack of resources and capabilities,” says Sister Azalech, the clinic’s director. When asked about the needs of the clinic, within the sister’s Amharic reply one word stands out clearly: “Genzeb.” Money.

“The international community should not wait for documentation; it should trust our reports, as we are the witnesses,” says Sebhatu Seyoum, social and development coordinator for the Adigrat Diocesan Catholic Secretariat (commonly known as A.D.C.S.), the social service arm of the Ethiopian Catholic Eparchy of Adigrat, which sponsors project funding for numerous institutions, including the sisters’ clinic.

“There’s confusion of information in the world’s media — people are not starving, but they’re close to starving,” says Mr. Seyoum, who estimates A.D.C.S. needs about $20 million to run its drought-related projects planned for the next six months. “We need to address this moment right now, before it gets worse.”

In the northern reaches of the country, especially, many are echoing Mr. Seyoum’s concerns.

About four miles from the Idaga Hamus clinic, a dirt road ends where the dun-colored land drops down a steep, rocky, cactus-filled hillside to a valley floor. Here nestles St. Michael Catholic School and its 300 primary students and 31 preschoolers. Not only must students brave the steep hillside to reach school each day, but some trek for up to an hour and a half each way, says 38-year-old school director Haftu Lemlem.

When the 40 students in sixth grade are asked how many ate breakfast, almost everyone raises a hand. Yet, Mr. Lemlem believes some may have been embarrassed to admit they had gone without, while others likely subsist on reduced portions.

“Many students are from very poor families; some are orphans. Some families near the school have vegetable plots, but those coming from further away don’t. About half need food support.”

Mr. Lemlem says so far the drought has not resulted in dropouts — which, in such a case, could be due to children being too weak to walk the long distances, or families moving in search of food and pastures for livestock — though he cautions that this could soon change; the school currently has no food support program.

“With an education, they have a chance of supporting themselves, but if they drop out they become fully dependent on others,” he says.

Further north, just shy of Ethiopia’s border with Eritrea, is another St. Michael School — the archangel has particular prominence among Ethiopian Christians — in the village of Awo. Along the road, a large truck comes from the other direction to deliver bags of animal feed to a P.S.N.P. food warehouse.

“Many here are pastoralists; their animals are their only collateral and assets,” says Ashenafi Aregawi, A.D.C.S.’s head of monitoring and evaluation. “Leaving aside dietary aspects, if they lose their animals they have nothing else.”

School director Tesfaye Berhe worries some parents may soon remove students to work on P.S.N.P.- supported schemes.

Through past droughts, the school had a meal program. This year, however, the program has yet to start for want of funding, a cause for concern among students with limited access to food.

One student, 13-year-old Rahel Zewde, only rarely has the chance to eat meat — it is a luxury usually reserved for major religious celebrations, such as Christmas and Easter, she says, looking away shyly and biting the neckline of her thin green and black hoodie. She adds she “sometimes” eats breakfast.

Rahel lives close by with four younger brothers and her single mother — her father left them for another family — in a compound belonging to extended family. With the two main buildings bolted shut, Rahel’s family occupies a corner screened from the sun but open to the elements, and sleeps under sacking on the stone floor.

When Rahel returns from school, she collects water and firewood, and looks after her brothers when her mother is away.

Sustaining Rahel in this delicate balance is her faith. “I pray to Mary, and ask her to save me from bad things,” she says.

Traveling east from Idaga Hamus along an escarpment, surrounded by mountain ranges stretching as far as the eye can see, leads to Tigray’s even more arid regional neighbor: the Afar, famous for its Danakil Depression — by average temperature, the hottest place on earth. Eventually the winding dirt road reaches the small village of Mawo and its school. With a predominantly Muslim population, most young girls wear headscarves while many boys wear local kopesa, a variety of sarong.

“We have a good relationship with the Catholic Church, which has supported us through extra buildings and water provision,” Ahmed Muhammad, the school’s 26-year-old director, says of support from the Adigrat Catholic secretariat.

Thus far, he says, there have been only three dropouts out of 300 students. The school has a World Food Program-provided feeding program that offers a daily porridge at 10 a.m. “But the service is based on last year’s report. As our numbers have increased, there is a gap,” Ahmed says.

“This area is normally drought-affected, so the life of the community depends on the government and other organizations,” says 40-year-old math teacher Dawit Hagos.

About a mile from the school is a dam built by the Adigrat Catholic secretariat in 2012, which created a small reservoir for the surrounding area’s livestock.

“Before the dam we had to take cattle far away into the hills to try and find rivers,” says Hussein Esmael, a member of the local militia, his AK-47 perched on a shoulder. “If God blesses us and we get rains we might have enough water also to irrigate the surrounding land so we can grow some crops.”

A.D.C.S. also built a local water pump. Pairs of young girls work the metal lever, jumping in the air to gain downward momentum. After filling two yellow containers and placing plastic bags under caps to ensure tighter seals, girls heave them onto the backs of waiting donkeys and return home.

The uneven impact of the drought makes coordinating responses even harder — some areas have experienced a 30 percent reduction in harvest, others have seen 90 percent or even total crop failure. Recently, the road between Mawo and Tigray passes through a valley bathed in the soft light of late afternoon, still relatively green with small allotments of crops growing beside simple flat-roofed stone buildings. Absent other vehicles, with people, donkeys and cattle sharing the dirt road, the scene appeared almost biblical — a reminder that Ethiopia remains a country of very different natures.

The capital, Addis Ababa, showcases another nature; construction cranes and a skyline that changes every month frame Africa’s fastest growing economy, averaging annual 10 percent growth for the past decade. This economic engine has been at the forefront of poverty reduction. Still, urban poverty in Ethiopia, while lower than the average, lingers around 25 percent. Moreover, most of the population of nearly 100 million lives outside modernizing cities capable of sophisticated food-aid allocation systems. Poverty remains, for now, an inexorable part of Ethiopian life.

Ethiopia’s tolerant mix of religions is given symbolic testament by Adigrat’s tallest building: the tower of Holy Savior Catholic Cathedral, the seat of the Eparchy of Adigrat. Though the Catholic flock makes up less than 1 percent of Ethiopia’s population, church leaders strive to coordinate relief throughout the region, on the basis of need rather than creed.

“We are like salt in water — this situation is dissolving us,” Bishop Tesfaselassie Medhin says of bureaucratic hurdles that complicate efforts to address hunger. “Though there are two sides to this: The government has followed a rational approach of containment and has tried to manage the situation on its own; and international partners need declarations, which take time.”

In 1984, Bishop Tesfaselassie was studying in England. “I watched the news with tears in my eyes. I felt naked and humiliated,” he says.

Because of its strong, consistent efforts to respond to that famine, the bishop notes, Ethiopia’s small Catholic Church gained great esteem among local communities. That hard-won reputation, however, could be undermined by the current situation.

“We feel quite helpless in a way,” he says. “Evaluations are taking too long. It’s terrible; the church can’t do anything. It’s possible we may lose credibility as a result, but we feel people could be harmed — that is more of a concern.”

For now, only two beds are occupied in the Daughters of Charity Alitena Health Center, located close to the border with Eritrea. Mother-of-ten Nigist Zhalay has a urinary tract infection while mother-of-six Gidema Amala has a skin infection causing painful inflammation around her jaw.

“Any type of illness is more likely if people aren’t getting enough nutrition,” says 28-year-old clinical nurse Solomon Sibhat. “We’re already seeing an increase in pneumonia and respiratory problems.”

“This country has changed so much,” Ms. Gidema says from her bed. “Before there were trees, water, honey, the landscape produced fresh items. We have cut down too many trees.”

One can debate how human error, El Niño and climate change have each contributed to the drought, and such discussion is important for long-term countermeasures. Right now, however, those at A.D.C.S. can only think of addressing more immediate humanitarian realities on the ground.

“After rains fail, problems always get worse from January onward, after people have used up their reserves,” says Daniel Zigta, A.D.C.S.’s education program coordinator. “Animals are already dying; humans are next.”

While government action in coordination with international charities has prevented — for now — scenes reminiscent of 1984, Ethiopia remains in a precarious state. Those impacted by drought now number around 8.2 million. According to United Nations estimates, this could rise to 15 million by the middle of 2016. With another El Niño-induced failed rainy season, positive strides could be tragically reversed.

“That experience in England left something in me,” Bishop Tesfaselassie says. “I love to see a country developing and changing through all its God-given resources. In five to ten years, Ethiopia may cope with these droughts on its own. But for that to become reality, a timely response is needed now to secure being able to face future challenges.”

Mr. Seyoum of the Adigrat Diocesan Catholic Secretariat has an even simpler message: “Don’t wait for it to be official, don’t wait for signatures — just act.”

James Jeffrey is a business journalist based in Addis Ababa. His work has appeared in African Business magazine and the Austin Business Journal.

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