Can Ethiopia cope with worst drought in decades?
- 10 November 2015
- From the section Africa
Ethiopia is suffering its worst drought in 30 years, but the country is better equipped to cope than the crisis in 1984, writes the BBC's Clive Myrie, who has visited one of the worst affected areas.
It is a hard-scrabble life being a farmer in northern Ethiopia.
Normal years are tough. In some areas the soil is poor for farming. There is little or no application of manure, so it is low in nutrients and crop yields are not as high as they could and should be. Any failure of seasonal rains spells big trouble, because reserve stockpiles of food will never be plentiful.
Bertukan Ali has lived such a life like many of the rural poor in the district of North Wallo, the most drought-prone region of Ethiopia.
Earlier this year she and her family waited patiently for the spring "belg" rains to fall.
Day after day they waited. Their fields, full of sorghum seeds, were thirsty. But the rains never came.
"OK", she said to herself, "we'll survive. The spring 'belg' are notoriously unreliable anyway, the summer 'kiremt' rains will shower the sorghum seeds in warm water."
So they waited, and waited, but again the rains did not come.
'Everyone is suffering'
When I met Bertukan a couple of days ago, she had just buried her five-year-old son Abdu Mohammed. He was a sickly child, not in the best of health, but when the family ran out of food because the rains did not come, he just got weaker and weaker.
Bertukan and I visited his grave, crowned with a vibrant green canopy of vine leaves.
We stood in front of it, and suddenly she began to cry. I did not know what to do. I did not know how to console her, help take away her pain. So I put my arm around her, it seemed to make sense at the time.
Bertukan told me that when Abdu Mohammed died, she felt as if she'd lost everything.
"Everyone is suffering," she told me. "We all have so little to eat because there was no harvest this season."
The UN says that in one area, two babies were dying every day. So Bertukan had joined a growing list of other mothers who had been left inconsolable.
As bad as 1984?
Many Ethiopians still remember the famine more than 30 years ago that spawned a global humanitarian response.
I met a man this week in North Wallo, less than 50 minutes drive from Korem, the area where so many people died in 1984, who recalls a "famine of biblical proportions".
Abera Weldu is now 68 and he has a face full of character. Like someone out of a pulp fiction novel, he had seen it all, done it all.
Every crease, every line, betrayed a life full of experience, and one of those experiences is having lived through the worst drought in a hundred years.
He looked me right in the eye, and like the man from a pulp fiction novel, gave it to me straight, both barrels blazing.
"Although this drought has just started, it's going to get worse," he said.
"It's already really severe. Some people have died of hunger, others are sick in their beds - right now it's just like 1984."
"Hang on," I thought to myself, "some estimates put those dying in the drought of 31 years ago at 100,000 to 200,000 people."
But the UN confirmed what Abera knew in his gut, from experience. The failure of the rains in 2015 were indeed as bad as the failure of the rains in 1984.
Much has improved
But much has changed in the intervening years.
In the 1980s, money that may have helped ease the effects of the drought, was instead used to fight a war to keep the country together, with the province of Eritrea wanting to break away.
Eritrea gained independence in 1993 but later fought a bitter border war with Ethiopia, which ended in 2000.
Ethiopia's economy is now one of the fastest growing in the world according to the International Monetary Fund - a far cry from the 1980s.
So much so that the government is now able to set aside $192m (£127m) to help deal with the current emergency, although the UN says far more is needed.
Poorer farmers in rural areas have for several years now been able to take advantage of a sort of social security safety net, where in lean times they have received money for public works, like digging water holes for animals.
That has meant that fewer people have starved when harvests have been poor.
And crucially Ethiopia has moved to a much more federal system of government since 1984. This means local officials have more autonomy to assess regional needs and mobilise resources more quickly to deal with hunger.
When I spoke with Bertukan Ali, by the grave of her son, she was carrying one of her other little boys in a sling on her back. He looked fit and strong.
Maybe he will survive this drought.