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El Niño in Ethiopia: "What will happen to us?"

Posted by Catherine Meredith Digital Content Editor

24th Feb 2016

Ethiopia, a country where up to 85 percent of people depend on rain-fed agriculture, is facing its worst drought in 50 years, resulting in a massive food and water insecurity crisis. Millions of people are in need of urgent humanitarian assistance. Catherine Meredith, outlines the scale of the emergency and how it has been exacerbated by climate change and the El Niño effect.

Erratic and failed rains over the last 12-18 months have led to alarming levels of malnutrition in eastern Ethiopia. The combination of failed rains and droughts has been worsened by the 2015 global El Niño weather phenomenon, which in turn has been supercharged by climate change. With hundreds of thousands of livestock already dead pastoralists are congregating near villages and towns where they hope to access water. The Government of Ethiopia is providing leadership in the emergency response, but due to the scale of the crisis has called for international support (costed at $1.4bn and currently only 48 percent funded) to save lives and prevent communities sliding further into poverty.

If needs are unmet the costs will simply escalate...A new Oxfam briefing sets out recommendations for action. An increase in donor funding is needed now. If needs are unmet the costs will simply escalate as increasing numbers of people will be more reliant on humanitarian assistance such as food aid and water trucking. The funds must also be flexible to adapt to changing contexts depending on when the next rains come. Strengthening livelihoods and water supplies must be a priority in the short and long terms, alongside action to tackle climate vulnerability into the future.

Oxfam is working in Afar, Somali and Oromia regions providing water, sanitation and hygiene materials, as well as providing animal fodder and seeds to maintain people's sources of income, and cash schemes which help people to buy food and essential items and keep the markets functioning. These emergency activities are supported by long term programmes. 

"Without water we are no more"

Buho Asowe Eye, Hariso IDP Center, Siti region, Ethiopia. Credit: Abiy Getahun/Oxfam

Buho Esowe Eye (pictured right) used to have 200 sheep and goats and 10 camels, now she is reduced to one camel and 10 sheep and goats and staying in a displaced people site, she told Oxfam:

"Without water we are no more. If we can sustain our lives, it is because Oxfam gave us water. I mainly spend my days [at the IDP site] collecting firewood and cooking. Collecting firewood can take four hours of the day. Sometimes more than that. My greatest fear is if the trucks stop bringing water. What will happen to us?"

Water is a critical issue. Oxfam currently spends $50,000 to 75,000 per month on water trucking for 3,835 households, we are also rehabilitating and improving existing wells and boreholes, but in the long-term new solutions and plans for sustainable water supplies are needed. 

Crops and animals have perished

Crop failures and lack of pasture and water are all contributing to loss of income and the risk of hunger. Pastoralist families Oxfam works with have explained how in 2015 they herded livestock to neighbouring Somaliland or Djibouti only to find dry barren land there as well. Their animals didn't survive the return journey and, given the animals are a critical source of income and nutrition, the families are now left reliant on aid. At the same time the price of livestock has plummeted while the price of meat has almost doubled. Families have told Oxfam that they have increasing debts from borrowing money for food

The planting seasons in March and June are key to improved food security for the year ahead, but seed reserves are depleted after repeated failed harvests so distributing seed is critical.

Women and children are heavily affected

Women, especially elderly pregnant and breastfeeding women, are affected heavily by the crisis. They have to walk ever longer distances to find firewood, water and food, and for this reason they are more likely to be absent during distributions, which is a particular problem for female headed households.

Children's lives are also being disrupted. There are reports of children being put at risk as they are left behind whilst their mothers drive remaining livestock further and further away in search of water and fodder, and of families sending their children to live with relatives in bordering countries. There are also indications that school drop-out rates are increasing.

Immediate action and long term climate solutions needed

The future of millions of Ethiopians, hangs in the balance. Climate change makes them increasingly vulnerable. More investment is needed in climate change adaptation and disaster risk management, but this will only go so far.

Much depends on how the world will respond on three key points: Ethiopia's immediate humanitarian emergency and recovery needs, timely delivery and management of adaptation funds for Ethiopia and other developing countries affected by climate change, and global reductions in green house gas emissions to limit global warming.

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Habodo Gele age 35, mother of seven, with her last remaining cow in Bisle, Siti zone, Ethiopia. Credit: Abbie Trayler-Smith/Oxfam 
Buho Asowe Eye. Hariso IDP Center, Siti region, Ethiopia. Credit: Abiy Getahun/Oxfam

Blog post written by Catherine Meredith

Digital Content Editor

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Catherine Meredith