It is dry in Ethiopia – bone-dry. Riverbeds have run empty and the camels drink at the sole remaining pond. With trucks, the government and NGOs shuttle water to the affected areas in the country’s northeast. If large-scale assistance does not arrive soon, millions of people risk dehydration, malnutrition and the starvation of their cattle, which is their main source of income.
Cordaid CEO Simone Filippini and her team are travelling in Afar, the dry area in North-eastern Ethiopia. What they see unnerves them: “For 2 years, not a drop of rain has fallen here,” says Filippini. “The soil is yellow instead of green.”
Harvests have failed. The population and the animals hardly have anything to eat.
Climate change, intensified by El Niño, causes Ethiopia to live through its driest period in thirty years. “Harvests have failed. The population and the animals hardly have anything to eat,” Filippini says. “Almost everyone here lives off animal husbandry. The animals are their food source as well as their capital.”
From Semera, the capital of the Afar state, the Cordaid team travelled to the Kori district, where Cordaid partner APDA organizes the water supply. “The community was waiting on our arrival,” Nienke Toren tells. “They were about 50 people, mostly women and children. These are the people that stayed behind; most men left with the cattle for areas farther away, where there still is water left.”
APDA takes care of the water supply in 5 districts. Every four days, a water truck comes along with 150,000 liters of water, which are then deposited in a reservoir. A woman guard watches over the distribution: every family is given 20 liters in a jerry can each day. “That of course is very little, considering you have to do everything with those 20 liters,” Nienke says.
In Kori, it last rained six months ago: a short shower. Before that, the last rain fell two years back. People are therefore completely dependent on the water trucks. Some try to fetch water by walking 20-25 kilometers each day, or by using donkeys. But the reality is that water sources that remain are quickly drying up.
This drought has continued for too long: it cannot be bridged by waiting.
Cattle gather to drink at the tiny pond (photo: Petterik Wiggers)
Because the Afar pastoralists are dependent upon their cattle, the lack of water and food is even more worrying to the Cordaid team. “People told us that their cattle were dying. The search for water in distant areas increasingly gets tougher,” according to Nienke. “We stopped at a tiny lake in the middle of nowhere, where the camels and goats from the local area drink. People come here daily with their animals for water and food. But there were not more than a few thorny bushes to eat from.”
International support required
The Ethiopian government is doing what it can to prevent the oncoming catastrophe. But to turn the tide of widespread famine, like in the eighties, the international community will rapidly need to lend a hand.
“The Dutch government provides a good example by the Partners for Resilience program,” Simone Filippini says. “ECHO, the emergency relief branch of the European Union has also opened an El Niño fund. But this is not enough: we need to ensure that the international community is not overtaken by events. This drought has continued for too long: it cannot be bridged by waiting.”