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East Africa drought: Older people expect the worst

11 Jul 2011

Safo, 90, sitting in her house in the drought-stricken Moyale district of Ethiopia. I flew into Addis Ababa at short notice to document the plight of older people in Ethiopia. It has not rained in the Borana region for almost 15 months.

To my surprise, I was greeted by rain in Addis. I had for some reason expected the entire country to be dry.

We (Glyn, the photographer and Tesfaye, the driver and I) left Addis the following day, heading to Yawello where we would spend the night.

The areas we drove through were fertile. Coffee, bananas, pineapples were growing in the fields. This went on for over seven hours. I initially thought our information from the field was wrong.

People are tired and desolate

We spent the night in Yawello. The area was a bit drier than the previous towns we had driven through. We left for Borana the following morning. In less than half an hour of driving, the impact of the lack of rain was immediate. Dry conditions greeted us. Heavy dust. People looking tired and desolate. The cows were thinner than those we had seen the day before. The fields with maize crops were now brown instead of green. The crops were dying. All this and we were not even in Borana.

Along the road side lay carcasses of cows and goats. The herds of cattle that we saw were thin, their ribs sticking out. Their herders were taking them to look for water, a commodity that is fast disappearing in the region. Some animals preferred to linger around the roadside since there was some elements of what used to be grass remaining there.

We saw many goat farmers weighing their goats by the roadside, selling them off before the situation worsens. At least they can get some money now rather than suffer a huge loss later.

A disaster waiting to happen

Women and children were walking through the dry fields carrying huge Jerri cans going off in search of water.

There were hardly any cars on this road which leads to Moyale. The few vehicles we encounter are buses or lorries transporting goods from across the Kenyan border.

When we got to Borana, the atmosphere was depressing. There is no major economic activity to write home about. Those with livestock that have not yet died have taken them to look for pasture, an exercise in futility.

Older people here seem to expect the worst. The few young people remaining gather in groups and spend the day chatting away. There isn't much to do. Only the children find amusement among themselves. Their innocence and lack of knowledge shields them from the looming disaster.

However, the older people who have lived through many dry periods know that if they do not receive assistance fast enough, a disaster is waiting to happen. I concur with their experience.

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.

Read more news on the east Africa crisis

Your comments

Pauline Teveli

Maina, This is a sad story and especially on the side of older people.It needs quick action to save the lives of older people Pauline

Jatani Sora

It is well documented however, Borana is the Zone/Provence but not the district.


What a heart touching report? In some part of the horn of Africa the rain has erratic nature, and it leads to water shortage for human,and animal consumption as well as create difficulty to grow crop. NGOs should think about changing the situation by designing and implementing projects that can change rain dependent livelihood system in the area- Such as funding water development projects that can enable the people to live have access for water in a sustainable way- NGOs should explore surface as well as ground water potentials in the area and highland areas- For how long they are implementing water trucking/transporting and feeding projects.

Sarah Marzouk

Thanks for your comment Sora. We definitely need to look at long term solutions to avoid this kind of crisis happening again. Do you think it would be possible to use water from the highlands to irrigate drier areas? If not, do you know of any longer term solutions that have worked? Drilling wells or bore holes, for example? Sarah Marzouk (from HelpAge)

Sora Melkam

Alternative sources of water should be studied and the feasible option should be identified at field level- I suggested different options only. For instance, in areas that are near to big rivers,like Wabi Shebele, we can think of gravitational or water lifting technology( water lifting using electric or generator power) where as in areas that have no such potential we can think of conserving the what ever moisture(including small rain)suing different water harvesting techniques,check dam,pond, etc....We can also think of drilling borehole in areas where the ground water is available. No blanket approach. Thanks- from Sora Melkam

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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.