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'I have not known it this bad in 30 years'

Ethiopia, August 6, 2011

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  <span class="field-credit">
    Erin Gray/Mercy Corps  </span>
    This was a small lake that served the water needs of families and their livestock — now it's mostly dried up. Photo: Erin Gray/Mercy Corps
  • 
  <span class="field-credit">
    Erin Gray/Mercy Corps  </span>
    Yusuf, the 60-year-old head of Ana Madobe village. Photo: Erin Gray/Mercy Corps

Earlier this week in Ethiopia's drought-hit Somali Region, I saw a small boy kneel and drink from what was left of a pond. I'd been talking all day with local people about the major shortage of water across the area, but it was only when I saw this boy — covered in dust and drinking what I'd thought of only as mud — that the reality of the crisis really hit me.

I've since learned that this boy was one of the lucky ones. Many more across East Africa face the months ahead without even dirty water to drink. Rains have barely touched the land here since the middle of last year, and aren't expected again until October.

It's made worse in parts of Gashamo District, where I have been, because there are no natural underground water sources to make wells or boreholes when rains fail. People survive by catching rain in big pits, and save it through the dry months to keep them, their families and their animals going. But now, as two consecutive rains have barely appeared, these pits are drying up — and there's still two months until there's any hope of more rain.

Yusuf, the 60-year-old head of Ana Madobe village in Gashamo, was sombre as he told me that his people are struggling. "We have 50 water pits, but for the last year only four have had any water. These four dried up long ago. We've been using vehicles and donkeys when we can to bring in water from other places, but it is far and very expensive.

"More than half of our people have left to look for water. Many of our animals have died. The remaining ones are sick because there is nothing for them to eat or drink. Our children are sick too — they have diarrhea and problems with their skin. It is not just the lack of water that is a problem. We only have wheat to feed everyone, and it is not enough to stop the children from weakening.

"Life has always been hard here, but I have not known it this bad in 30 years. We can survive for maybe two more weeks. After that, I just don't know what will happen."

Mercy Corps has been working across Gashamo since the first rains failed. We've already trucked in water for 55,000 people, and I saw the huge, 10,000-liter water storage tanks that our teams are installing in 20 schools across the region. The tanks will hold clean water so that children can stay in school and be sure they'll get a drink every day. They hold not only water that's brought in from elsewhere, but also water collected when the rains do
arrive.

I've seen first hand how hard our teams are working to give people the water they need. But it's clear that here and across the region much more is likely to be needed to keep communities like Yusuf's going until the October rains.