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Ethiopia: Two years of drought followed by floods, challenge the pastoral way of life

27 Jun 2016

For much of the year, the eastern Ethiopian regions of Afar and Sitti are dry and inhospitable places. Yet this is where many pastoralists live, moving from place to place, searching for water and pasture to feed their precious livestock. This delicately balanced life changed two years ago when the rains started to fail, nothing grew and livestock died.  The ensuing drought has challenged the very way of life of these nomadic communities. 

Many of the local nomadic peoples of this region say that this drought was the worst in 25 years. Pastoral communities became dependent on aid provided by the government and a handful of NGOs. For two years there was little if any rain, and in desperation, many started to sell their animals to buy food. In a culture where livestock is linked to human survival and status it is sometimes said that the pastoralists, “would rather die than sell their animals.” Mohammed Delal was originally part of a Médecins Sans Frontières assessment team sent to Afar in September. “When we arrived the situation was awful. I was really struck by one area in particular,” he says. “We saw a field with many, many graves. One of the more recent contained a mother, a father and five children. Apparently they had all passed away from malnutrition or associated.”

“We saw a field with many, many graves. One of the more recent contained a mother, a father and five children. Apparently they had all passed away from malnutrition or associated.”

“In some places we visited, we could smell death.  Animals had been dying at an alarming rate and local people were struggling to bury the decomposing remains. This left a lingering putrid smell in the air.” At clinics we work from, there was an ever increasing number of malnourished children. Diseases associated with hunger and squalid conditions like measles, watery diarrhoea and pneumonia started to spread. Mohammed met many people who were too weak to travel. One group he came across in the bush had no remaining food.  When asked where they were going the group’s elder simply responded, “we are waiting to die, we have no more livestock and we cannot move forwards or back. There is nothing left for us.” 

Through targeted food distribution and a medicalised nutrition programmes, some positive results ensued. Support was getting through to those families most in need and the most acutely malnourished children. Things started to change in mid-March as the rains finally started to arrive, but quickly became relentless showers. In the first days, many of the roads that humanitarian agencies used turned to mud and became impassable. Some makeshift shelters of the affected people were washed away along with livestock. Médecins Sans Frontières was concerned that people would be cut off from food aid and medical support, but there was now also the possibility of cholera and a resurgence of malaria. Things became incredibly difficult. According to Ekin Gayretli, Médecins Sans Frontières’ project manager in Sitti region, “Our three main operational bases had to scale down outreach to the more remote locations but we continued nonetheless” According to Mohammed, “During the worst of the floods we went out and screened the children. Those families with children in need of help would receive a double ration of the high energy food plumpynut.”

While the rain continued, the region slowly underwent a metamorphosis. Grass started to grow everywhere and the once semi-desertic landscape now turned green. To the people of the region this obviously brought a sense of relief. Although the numbers of malnourished children also dropped, the situation continues to be unstable. When asked a few days ago about the situation, reported was, “There is still a need. From time to time we still come across families with severely malnourished children.   We are also aware that the rain that has fallen has only lasted a month. We can only hope that this is enough for the pastoralists to survive the lean period when nothing grows.”