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East Africa drought : Older people are left behind

13 Jul 2011

Taditi Shiiro moved to Borana, Ethiopia in search for food. If the drought continues, she will move to Kenya with her family.It is obvious from observations in Borana and Moyale districts in southern Ethiopia that older people are bearing the brunt of the lack of rains in the region.

We met a number of older people, women and children in the villages, but very few young men. They had gone off with the few cattle that have survived the harsh conditions, looking for pasture and water.

One older man told us that his sons had taken the cattle two hours walk away where some water was available.

Resigned to their fate

The districts I visited are not too far from the Kenyan border, particularly the Kenyan town of Moyale. Many able-bodied people have moved there, believing the aid they will receive on the Kenyan side will be much better.

For older people, the journey there is treacherous and most are not even considering travelling there. They are resigned to their fate.

The only water available is dirty

The water available in few springs or rivers that have not yet dried up is dirty. This water is what the people rely on, not just for the cattle, but for their daily consumption. The water is causing stomach pains and diarrhoea among the older people.

It gets really cold in the morning, an illusion that the weather might improve. The drought-resistant bushes around the region also give the impression of some greenery. There are hills in the distance that seem green from here too.

However in the villages, it is extremely dry. Carcasses of dead cows are visible. Thankfully, the villagers have learned from the previous droughts that they have to burn the carcasses. If not, when the rains finally fall, the carcasses will cause diseases.

Living on one meal a day

The food situation was beyond depressing. The villagers are living on one meal a day. This meal consists of boiled maize or boiled wheat. They eat this either at lunch or for supper. In the morning or late in the evening, black tea is the only beverage they can take.

This is really harsh for older people. Their dietary needs are not met. Safo Bonaya Boru, a 90 year old woman, cannot eat the maize because it is too hard for her teeth. She resorts to drinking the water used after the maize is boiled.

We also met 60-year-old Halake. In the video below he talks poignantly about the severe and painful effects of the drought. It was difficult to hear.

My experience was extremely humbling. It is hard for most people to imagine living on such a diet. Worse still, the condition is not improving but getting worse. Only time will tell what people will eat if food donations are not forthcoming.

PLEASE DONATE: HelpAge's work is supported by our sister organisation Age UK. Please donate to Age UK's East Africa appeal for vulnerable older Ethiopians and their families affected by the drought.

Age UK is raising money together with the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) for the East Africa Crisis. The DEC is a consortium of 14 aid agencies working together.

READ MORE news on the east Africa crisis.

Your comments


Immediate action is important, and the public in UK as well as the UK government has started donating money. However,the resource should be used to address some of the major root causes of the problem. For me giving sustainable solution for the water shortage will help to address many problems in the area- Water projects will enable people( including older people and vulnerable women and children) to have access to water for household consumption( drinking, sanitation and hygiene) and grow crop. Above all, availability of water will enable the Borena people to grow animal fodder and have will enable them to have water for livestock since their livelihood depends more on animal production and marketing. The water table of the area is going down from time to time;therefore, water projects should include bring water from distance highland areas that have water potential, borehole construction in areas that have the ground water , and sustainable rainwater harvesting. Option one( bring water from potential areas) doesn't mean water trucking/transportation that some NGOs are doing because it is not sustainable solution for Borena people.

Sarah Marzouk

I definitely that giving aid isn't a sustainable solution for the people of Borana, but at the moment it is necessary to see people through this drought and food crisis. Maybe after the crisis, more long term solutions should be looked at. What do you think would work? Drilling more bore holes, building more wells? Sarah.


For a person who have no enough to eat and drink the priority should be delivering food and water etc, in that case I agree with you. However, we should avoid duplication of effort when there are different actors in the field. For instance, if the government with partners like World food/DFID are providing food, others development/emergency organizations should use their scarce resources to long term things. Should NGOs continuing by responding for emergency situations? Remembering the food aid and emergency approach since 1984 and even beyond in Ethiopia is enough, I think. NGOs should bring strategic shift and think about disaster risk management and enable the people to feed themselves.

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Author profile

Gacheru Maina
Country: Kenya
Job title: Regional communications officer, HelpAge

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