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Despite rains, drought is far from over

Ethiopia, October 14, 2011

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    Mercy Corps cash for work project at Camp Idle (eed-lay), near Gashamo, we are paying workers to build water storage facility, will hold 200,000 liters to supply an entire village, build resilience to future droughts. Photo: Bija Gutoff/Mercy Corps Photo: big_ditch_in_ethiopia.jpg

On the road halfway between Gashamo and Jijiga, we spent the night with a local family. As we sat and talked on the front stoop, the evening was pleasant, the full moon bright. Then in a matter of an hour or so, I watched the clouds roll in and the stars wink out. By the time I bedded down, rain was drumming hard on the roof. It was a wonderful sound.

So does that mean the drought is over?

Not by a long shot.

I talked with several of my Mercy Corps teammates to get a clearer picture of the cycle here. “We are hearing about some scattered rain in parts of Ethiopia,” said Mohammed Sheikh Osman, the head of our Jijiga office. “So for the time being, we can stop trucking water to Gashamo, which has been a real hotspot of the drought. As of Tuesday in that area, people have adequate water to drink.”

But in three areas in the southern region of Oromia, where there is no rain yet, or where slight scattered rains are not sufficient, we are continuing to truck emergency water.

And all over Ethiopia, it will take weeks for the pastures that put the “live” in “livestock” to recover. As Nate Oetting, director of Mercy Corps’ integrated humanitarian response in Ethiopia, told me: “The national meteorological agency, which is quite good at forecasting weather trends, is predicting a shorter than normal rainy season, with below-normal rainfall amounts. We’ll get some stubby grass, but the regeneration of pastures will be minimal. Animals may survive, but they’ll continue to suffer. And it won’t be enough to sustain people through the long dry season that kicks off in mid-December.”

To the extent the grass begins to grow, animals get more to eat. But an animal that has been through a prolonged period of deprivation takes time to get stronger. Some animals will gain enough to provide meat to their owners over the next six months or so.

But getting their reproductive cycles back on track – so they can give birth and provide milk – takes longer. Here, milk is the main food for children. “Even assuming normal rains this season, and for the next three rainy seasons,” said Nate, “it will be early 2013 before the region produces enough milk for the children’s needs.” That means the most vulnerable people here – children under five, pregnant women and the elderly – will continue to be malnourished for some time.

Meanwhile, where rain is falling, it actually brings new problems: disease. Water is collected in birkeds – open ponds – which by nature aren’t germ-free. “It’s the storage system they use,” said Nate, “but unfortunately it’s not hygienic.” Mercy Corps expects to see a big spike in diarrhea cases, and we’ll shift our focus to treating the illnesses people get from drinking unclean water. “These waterborne sicknesses are especially hard on kids,” Nate added. “It’s as dangerous as not having enough water.”

I’m hearing similar news from my teammates in Wajir, where I visited last week: some rain is falling, but unlike instant soup, where you just add water, this water is no instant fix for the troubles in the Horn of Africa.