7 April 2008

Ethiopia: The Grim Face of Drought

Three days after Prime Minister Meles Zenawi had a showdown, on March 18, with his Parliamentary political rivals over their allegations of neglect of the drought in the eastern and southern parts of the country, when delivering his half-year report, Tesfalem Waldyes, Special to Fortune, was dispatched to Borena, one of the 17 zones in the Oromia Regional State.

What he saw was an alarmingly escalating drought that caused a rising death toll of cattle and insufficient humanitarian responses by local authorities. Local people felt neglected. Experts warn that should the rains fail to fall in the coming season, the consequences will be too horrific to contemplate.

They were about 16 women, scattered on half of the road on the highway not far from the town of wassa, 276Km south of Addis Abeba; when cars were passing, they tried to stop drivers with loud chanting and waving of their long sticks. They were not beggars; a mix of young and old, these married women were performing a ritual known in the Oromo culture as "Atette Sera", a spiritual communications with God so that rain could come to their village.

They said that they had walked all the way from Toga Woraresa, an area located between the towns of Shashemne and Awassa. This area had not experienced rain for the past two months. Thus, they performed the ritual throughout the week, hoping that they could collect 40 to 50 Br each day from drivers passing by, in order to buy goats to sacrifice to God, until such time that they would see clouds hovering in their village's sky.

"God will hear our prayers," said Kalele Edao, a group leader.

Friday, March 21, was their lucky day; they had collected 40 Br before it got dark and they were pleased to see that the sky over head was covered by a cloud. Kalele and the other women saw cloud as a good sign that pleasant days were ahead of them. There would be rain, and their cattle could find something green to graze.

In the past few months, they had watched their cattle become weaker and weaker by the day. They had witnessed the deaths of their neighbors' cattle. Their stocks of grain and cereal had become almost empty. They foresee the worst, should it fail to rain in the next few weeks and water their dried up land. They are not alone in their gloomy forecast.

Reports are emerging from international organizations alarmed by the combined effects of a strong La Nina weather condition and the cooling of Western Indian Ocean waters; both developments lead to a forecast that there will be below normal rainfall during the March to May rainy season in countries along the Horn of Africa, including Ethiopia. According to a Food Security Update for East Africa, released in February 2008 by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), these environmental developments have consequences such as unusual livestock migration as well as significant deterioration of livestock body conditions, negatively impacting both on livestock production and their market value in these countries.

"The March to May rains have the widest geographic coverage of any seasonal rainfall in the region," says the report. "But most importantly, they are very crucial for both livestock and crop production in the eastern equatorial parts of the region, covering Somalia, most of Kenya, southern and eastern Ethiopia and parts of Djibouti, where they contribute 50pc or more of the annual rains received."

In Ethiopia, reports reveal that the food security situation in Oromia, Somali, Gambella and Southern regional states has deteriorated in the past two months. Kalele's village is one of the most affected areas in the southern parts of the country. Nevertheless, it can hardly be described as depressing when compared to Borena area, one of the 17 zones in the Oromia Regional State.

According to reports from rapid assessment conducted by experts from zonal offices and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) operating in the area, such as SOS Sahel and GOAL Borena, the drought situation in Borena has undoubtedly increased in its size and scale since January 2008. For instance, the number of needy population increased from 88,000 people then to 314,907 now, according to their findings.

They attribute this to the poor rains recorded in the past two rainy seasons: the main one, Ganna, extended from March to May, and the showery rain in Hageya, lasting a long from September to November. As a result, grazing lands have turned to reddish dust and water ponds, wells and boreholes have dried up. Lack of pasture and insufficient water has caused the death of a significant number of cattle, almost daily.

In February 2008 alone, 14,334 livestock perished in Dillo, Dire, Dahas, Teltele, Arero, Miyo, Moyale and Yabello, weredas all found in Borena, according to United Nation's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

The poor condition of livestock and their subsequent deaths also led to the malnourishment of children and the elderly. Shortages in food availability, combined with unhealthy water sources, also caused outbreaks of diseases in some of these areas. There are reports of people dying from epidemics of meningitis and measles.

There is perhaps no other place than Borena Zone to demonstrate the most visible but ghastly effects of the drought. It covers 48.75skm, with a vast area of semi-arid lands. Decades ago, drought used to occur in every eight to 10 year cycle. Then it was narrowed to five-years; in recent years, the gap declined to two years. Some reports claim that Borena Zone has lost 75pc of its herds of livestock during the 2001 drought. After four years, another disastrous drought hit the area, leading to considerable livestock deaths, incidences of human diseases, malnutrition, migration, and overall depletion of the traditional coping mechanism of the people there.

Kotu Dukicha, 80, is a resident of Melbana Kebele, in Miyo Wereda of Borena Zone. He has witnessed so many of these droughts; but he says the amount of rain he has seen this year was the lowest of all the other years.

"I have never seen such rain scarcity in my whole life," he told Fortune.

Borena's average rainfall is about 650mm; however, Kotu's village hardly received this amount during the past four years. Experts fear that the gap between the recurrent droughts is increasingly narrowing every year. They also see the scale and extent of drought this year as different from the one in 2006.

"The drought has seriously affected the pastoralist weredas of our zone," Geda Robe, vice administrator of Borena Zone, told Fortune. "In a significant way, it had affected six weredas a few months back, but now it has spread to 10 weredas."

Cattle Are Dying

Kalcha Waka, 30, lives in Melbana Keble of Miyo Wereda, one of the eight severely affected areas in the zone. One morning a week ago, he was helplessly looking at his dying cow, his eyes filled with sorrow and he was crushed. Having lost the ability to walk, two of Kalcha's cows were stuck in one place, glued to something on the fenced barn. Just a few meters from the barn, the skins of six cattle were fastened to the ground, so that they could dry.

After counting the dried skins kept in his hut, it was clear that he had lost more than 30 of his livestock in the past two months, although he claimed to have lost 80. It takes stamina to withstand the foul smell that permeates the air should there be an attempt to count the 45 or so dead cattle littered on the ground behind his hut.

"I had bought a stock of hay for 4,600 Br to save them," Kalecha told Fortune. "I brought a veterinary kit to cure them from any possible diseases; however, I could not succeed."

Kalecha's 80 cattle were among the 1,413 livestock registered as dead in Miyo Wereda. While increasing by the day, the number of livestock death in all affected weredas of Borena Zone has risen to 17,204 animals up until the first week of March 2008, disclosed a report produced by the Rapid Assessment Team dispatched to the areas.

Massive cattle death in Borena area was one of the issues that was raised during a debate held on March 18, 2008, when Prime Minister Meles Zenawi delivered his administration's six-month performance report to Parliament. Opposition MPs criticized the Prime Minister for his failure to incorporate the drought situation and its effects in his report, which fully focused on economic issues.

Meles admitted that there is a water shortage and problems associated with it in the southern and eastern parts of the country. However, he rejected assertions by opposition MPs that drought has caused the death of humans and cattle in some parts of the country, including Borena.

"Complaints about deaths of people and cattle are false," Meles told Parliament.

Indeed, there is no officially reported human death toll due to famine to date. Nevertheless, roaming around the weredas of Borena Zone reveals an area overwhelmed by carcasses. Every other day, dogs and vultures enjoy a new addition of such dead bodies. In some places, the villagers try to collect the carcasses in one place, and in a few locations they are tried of burning them. For pastoralists in Borena, the scene of someone pulling dead bodies of cattle is hardly startling.

Eyya Eroro, a resident of Denebela Bedena Kebele in Dire Wereda, has been doing it frequently in the past three months. After pulling the first few bodies, he had the energy to drag them far away from his village; later, nine carcasses lay on the bush only few minutes walk from his hut. Many of the other of his 121 cattle were found dead after a futile attempt to search for pasture.

Eyya now fears for the survival of his remaining 10 cattle; he wonders where he will get food for his eight children and two wives should they all die.

"I could get no milk," Eyya said. "I only have had tea and roasted maize since this morning."

When he started to talk about what he had eaten on Saturday afternoon, March 22, his wives and other women surrounded him smiled, but were embarrassed. Milk being plenty in their normal life, calling tea with roasted maize as food appeared to the women rather a humiliation. Had there been a guest visiting them a few months before the drought, the women would have shown how they proportionally mix the flour of maize with milk before they prepare their favorite traditional food, Shumo. Now such is a luxury to even think about. Whether it is roasted, baked for dough or prepared as porridge for children, maize is the only food available in their houses. However, Eyya see that purchasing maize from the local market has become unaffordable.

"We are buying a quintal of maize for 300 Br," Eyya told Fortune. "The price has doubled after the drought."

With prices going up, Eyya and Kalecha were forced to sell their cattle in order to get enough money to purchase maize.

Dwindling Values

According to assertions by Prime Minister Meles to Parliament two weeks ago, people like Eyya and Kalecha should be alright. Unlike previous droughts when the value of their cattle goes down, now they fetch better prices.

"Previously, when droughts occur, the price of cattle goes down," Meles said in Parliament. "However, there is no such a thing now. They [herders] can sell them at good a price . . . and they are also selling the cattle at better prices than ever before."

Unfortunately, the market has not been as generous to pastoralists in Borena. The higher maize prices are, the lower it seems the value of their cattle is getting. Offers they get from buyers range from 30 Br to 600 Br, which is disappointingly a far cry from the 2,500 Br to 5,000 Br their cattle used to earn them during normal days. Eyya, for instance, has sold 11 cattle, of which seven brought to him 300 Br each, two 100 Br each, and the other two 45 Br and 30 Br.

Kalecha's experience was a little different. He sold 10 cattle with prices ranging from 300 Br to 600 Br.

"There are a couple which I took to the market but could not sell," Kalecha said, looking frustrated. "The buyers saw their condition and refused to take them."

Pastoralists Fortune talked to in various weredas in Borena zone shared similar experiences.

Ironically, it seems a bonanza for some urban based pastoralists such as Wegene Debere, who lives in the outskirts of Yabelo town, the seat of Borena Zone, 570Km south of Addis Abeba. He had 25 cattle before drought hit Borena; now he herds 40 additional cows in his barn. He bought them from the cattle market in Dubeluk town, located 71Km from Yabelo.

He told Fortune that he transported them all on a rented Isuzu truck for almost all were too weak to be raided. Two, for instance, have died after they arrived at his barn, and another one could not stand in its feet.

"I bought them for 600 Br to 700 Br each," Wegene said, while feeding the starved cows from piles of hay stock in his barn. "If it was not for the drought, each of them would have cost me 1,500 Br to 1,600 Br."

But finding hay from a drought affected pastoral rural area is a new challenge to Wegene. A bell of hay, weighing 15Kg, was on sale for 35 Br last week. Wegene said if prices go up further, he would have no other options but to buy it whatever it could cost. Businessmen in the area began transporting Isuzu loaded hay there in there in a bid to take advantage of the higher demand. Some said they would not hesitate to travel as far as Entoto to buy cheaper hay.

Beyene Jigeso, a herder in Dubeluk town, was one of these paid 5,500 Br to transport hay from Entoto to his place. When it arrived, though, it was too late to save 19 of his 70 cattle: three more died on the same day that he gave this interview to Fortune.

"What should I do?" he said, watching three of his neighbors dragging dead cattle out. "They are dying while they eat."

Most of pastoralists share such frustration and more. They could not find a solution better than buying and providing water and hay for their cattle.

The government and NGOs operating in the area have established feeding centers in suitable location in each weredas. They provide hay, concentrated food and water. According to Geda, the vice administrator, his administration was able to reach 14,227 cattle through a feeding center as well as giving direct aid to pastoralists.

"What has been provided for cattle is lower than the needed amount," he admitted.

Enough, Not Too Much

Animal science recommends that every cattle should get 3.5Kg of hay and 1.5Kg of concentrated food, according to Tadesse Kassa, animal production team leader in Miyo Wereda. The amount hay that has been provided in his area has gone down to two kilograms, disclosed Tadesse. Even this amount is only available for the cattle kept in the feeding centers.

Pastoralists are allowed to bring up to five cattle to feeding centers. Kalecha took five of his cattle to one of the feeding centers near his home. One feeding center normally hosts 250 to 300 cattle, and it is only cows that are allowed to be fed there. In some places, calves also kept in separate places, although their mothers still claim priority.

"If calves are kept with their mothers, it would affect the well-being of the weakened cows," Tadesse said.

As a result of similar conclusions, pastoralists began killing calves to save their mothers. A casual look at the surrounding of feeding centers reveal carcasses of such victims scattered. Many agree that the lack of enough animal food has brought this.

There are others who fear that what is seen in the population of cattle may happen to people, if the drought escalates further. Those operating on the ground working for NGOs, such as Jateni Sora, program manager at Borena Field Office GAYO Pastoral Development Initiative, warn that a failure of the next rainy season may result in "mass death". These are people who are not satisfied with the response to the developing humanitarian crises. The volume of food aid is in sufficient, they say, and in some places, like Eyaa's village, there are none.

"We've heard that aid is coming," said Jarso Jateni, a local militia in Eyya's Kebele. "However, we did not receive anything."

Jarso has lost 26 of his cattle. Frustrated for waiting the government, Jarso and others are buying maize to feed their children and themselves from the local market.

Vice Administrator Geda defends his administration and the government record in their effort to halt the danger of hunger in Borena Zone. He disclosed that 563,561 Br was immediately withdrawn from a Safety Net budget and distributed to 94,293 beneficiaries. Additional 124,000 family heads were supported spending 7.4 million Br from the Zone's regular budget. This money also covers the distribution of water using 22 water trucks.

Whether or not these emergency relief responses are arguably adequate, some in the aid community in Addis Abeba wonder how much prepared officials at the Disaster Prevention and Preparedness Agency (DPPA) are should the main rainy season fail. The federal Emergency Food Security and Reserve Administration lent much of its stock to the Ethiopian government, which has been waging tough battle against spiraling prices in urban centers. The federal government borrowed grains from the Administration through the Ethiopian Grain Trade Enterprise (EGTE), to stabilize prices in urban markets that affected largely the low income group.

The Administration has a total capacity of storing 405,000tns of grains, while currently, it only accumulates 100,000tns. Fekade Zewede, head of planning and information of the Administration, however, says though the available stock stands at low level, the Administration is capable of responding to any emergency requirement. There is yet to be a request, though.

Rain Too Brings Death

Luckily, the weather forecast for the main rainy season is positive. In fact, the concern for some is on the flood that may hit some of the places in the south, such as Borena. Even last week, sporadic showers began to pour, as if it was a positive response to prayers by the women of Toga Woraresa.

But they should not stop here for the current showery rains are not necessarily good news to pastoralists in the south: they fear the worst is yet to come after the rain starts.

"Losing their resistance, the cattle will be dying due to cold," said Kalecha.

Kalele and her women will probably continue with their rituals, urging God to intensify the volume of rain-He perhaps had begun to send.

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