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East Africa crisis: Why the rain and green hills in Ethiopia won't help those affected by drought

04 Aug 2011

Cattle and greenery on the way to BorenaBorena zone. All the information I had heard about this area was drought!

When leaving Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, I was prepared to experience people's distress, poverty and extreme heat as a result of failed rains and insufficient food.

As the HelpAge team began its 570km journey to Borena, ironically, the weather was wet. It had been pouring heavily throughout the night, wetting and washing the roads of asphalt then casually running into the city's sewage systems.

Like many of my colleagues who recently visited Borena, I observed prosperous landscapes of cultivated fields and dense forests on the way there. To my astonishment, the dry arid landscapes of ArsiNegelle which I had driven past but four months ago had transformed into remarkable green pastures. It's amazing what effect seasonal rain can have.

Entering the Borena zone, I noticed the landscapes getting drier and increasingly the trees, mainly acacia, spreading out.

I spoke to the individal older people in various districts of the Borena zone. The first two districts, I visited were cool in the morning so the older people I spoke to preferred to be inside their homes, in some cases they had little fires to warm themselves.

Not enough food for older people and their families

The following days in the other districts, I talked to a man aged 100 years. He was lying in the sun covered with agabi trying to get some warmth from the sun.

The major concern for these older people is, for the most part, food followed by water. They lack the income to buy sufficient amounts for their usually big households consisting of them, their children and grandchildren.

Furthermore, even if there was money, there is a shortage of food in the local market which means the rations have to be decreased as well as the meals per day.

All the older people unanimously agree that they have difficulty ingesting the food available, maize, yet they manage to eat some and stomach the rest of the time drinking a lot of water.

Everyone I spoke to ate only once a day. And two of the older people mentioned that water that had been trucked in had been contaminated, poisoning the community.

Oasis pond project in Borena zone, EthiopiaA chance for clean water

Older people are particularly affected by this hazard, because they usually have someone carry their water for them, depriving them of the opportunity to hear and apply the water purification procedures usually given during the rationing. This means both them and the children in their care fall ill.

To this end, I visited a pond, one of of four in Yabello district, built together by Action For Development and HelpAge International between 2007 and 2009.

It was heartening to see that this water point is still providing service to the community for a fee of 10 cents (USD$ 0.006 ), and for free to older people.

A devastating loss staring them right in the face

Driving through to the villages, there were carcasses of livestock left behind as they got too weak to carry on with the rest of the cattle. These are the new ones. Most cattle sheds we drove past stood empty. I was told by a partner staff that more than 100,000 carcasses had been eliminated by burning earlier.

It must be devastating to have the remains of what was once your wealth lying around lifeless and worthless. A reminder of their loss staring them right in their faces.

On the last day, I visited a district where I got to experience the scorching sun. As compared to the first two sites visited, here the one of the major concerns was shelter. The two older people I spoke to were poor, had one child dependant and no resources to construct their homes in a manner suitable for older people.

The older man was tall yet the doorway very low, in fact he had to duck down rather low to enter, and he couldn't stand up straight inside. The older woman's home had no grass on its roof. She is affected by wind at night fall and the scorching sunlight during day.

In her case, if the anticipated short rainy season should occur; her home is at serious risk of flooding as well as both her and her granddaughter at risk of drowning even more so than all the other households  in area as they live alone with no neighbouring huts in close perimeter.

Why not move to pastures new?

So if people are suffering from lack of food, dying cattle and adequate shelter, the obvious question is why don't they move to the greener, lusher areas?

After asking this question, the first reason I was giving for people not migrating to greener pastures, was conflict.

For many years, there has been continuous conflict between the various clans of Borena, namely around land ownership, although these days things have calmed down.

There was a buffer zone; which was for use of all clans yet for years no one used it - until now. But because of a lack of land and water in Borena, the buffer zone has been overstocked already as well.

The second reason for lack of migration is a lack of suitable vegetation. The green areas with lush vegetation are unsuitable for the livestock. They don't have the pasture required to support large numbers of cattle.

These areas, the highlands, consist of plantations such as coffee, maize etc.

It has been an eye-opening trip and I have learned many things - particularly about the people of Borena, their social structure and their festivities. But more on this later...

  • HelpAge's work is supported by our sister organisation Age UK. Please donate to Age UK's East Africa appeal for vulnerable older people affected by the devastating drought in Ethiopia.

  • Age UK is raising money together with the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) for the East Africa Crisis Appeal. The DEC is a consortium of 14 aid agencies working together in times of disasters and emergencies.

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Author profile

Erna Mentesnot Hintz
Country: Ethiopia
Job title: Communications Officer

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These blogs are personal reflections and do not necessarily reflect the views of HelpAge International.