Severe drought leaves millions relying on emergency aid

Livestock have perished, river beds have dried up, and people are walking several kilometres to find food and water in a growing number of districts of Ethiopia, currently struggling with its worst drought in 50 years.

Herds of livestock perish as number of districts severely affected rises sharply

Severe drought leaves many Ethiopians in survival mode

8 years ago
Duration 2:48
Featured VideoIn Africa, a difficult dry spell has become the worst drought in decades. Crops and livestock are dying, leaving millions of people malnourished and more desperate each day.

There's an eerie silence in the desert landscape of Ethiopia's eastern rim, the lands stretching toward neighbouring Somalia and the Gulf of Aden beyond it.

It's more of an absence, really, and it takes a while to put your finger on it. Then it hits. No livestock. If you do see them, they're few and far between, their ribs sunken, just like the dry river-beds snaking across the savannah.

Even the famously robust camels look frail in this part of the world, as if they might crumple and blow away with the wind.

Ethiopia is currently in the grip of its worst drought in 50 years, and more than 10 million people are relying on emergency food aid provided by the government and international aid agencies.

Other facts:

  • The Ethiopian government and international NGOs have launched a $1.4-billion appeal to deal with the crisis, but only about half that amount has been raised so far.
  • In December 2015, Canada announced it would contribute $30 million in emergency humanitarian assistance funding to several UN agencies and NGOs working in Ethiopia. A separate $73 million has been earmarked for development assistance in the coming year.
  • In 2015, Canada ranked as the fifth-largest humanitarian donor to Ethiopia.
  • This week, the EU announced 122.5 million euros in extra aid.
  • The UN and other aid agencies are in the middle of a 90-day campaign to raise awareness of the additional funding needed to "address the humanitarian resource gap."

Hundreds of thousands of herd animals are thought to have perished in this part of the country over the course of three failed rainy seasons. The knock-on effect for the people depending on them is devastating.

Hundreds of thousands of herd animals have perished in the drought in eastern Ethiopia. Their loss is devastating to pastoral farmers who rely on them. (Richard Devey/CBC)

"This is really very difficult," said Abdul Shakour Abdel Fetah, standing in front of a single patch of green in an endless desert of dust.

He's a local official in the Sitti Zone of the Somali region of Ethiopia, showing us a project to help pastoralists who've lost their livestock shift focus to sustainable farming. "All animals perished actually," he said. 

No cows, no milk 

The government project is relying on bore holes tapping into the table water to irrigate land slated for development. But it's hard to imagine anything growing easily in conditions so unforgivingly hot without more water.

In the hottest and hardest-hit regions, Ethiopians look for employment on 'work for food' programs, which include digging bore holes in the desert. (Margaret Evans/CBC)

Local health workers in the worst-affected regions have set up weighing stations for children. About 430,000 children are estimated to be suffering from acute malnutrition.

We met a mother named Deka Adem who brought her two-year-old Bishar to a health station when he became dull and listless.

The nurses say Bishar is also suffering from diarrhea and dehydration, likely from drinking unclean water.

Adem said part of the problem was that there was no milk because their one cow was getting weak for lack of food.

More than 70% live off the land 

Finding clean drinking water is a major challenge, with people spending hours walking every day to reach water stations or bore holes. Nobody goes without carrying a yellow jerry can to fill up, and people with donkeys are the kings of the road.

Ethiopian drought takes its toll

8 years ago
Duration 1:04
Featured VideoLivestock herders in eastern Ethiopia are struggling to feed their animals amid a worsening drought

Many of those who can't find food, water or work, and can afford to get there, try to head to Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's bustling capital.

The country enjoys one of the fastest growth rates on the African continent, earning it the moniker "The Lion of Africa."

Anti-poverty efforts stepped up 

But more than 70 per cent of Ethiopians live off the land and it remains a country mired in poverty despite government efforts to cut it in recent years.

"The government of Ethiopia is doing a super job on bringing all sorts of their budget towards this problem," Canada's ambassador to Ethiopia, Phillip Baker, said in an interview. Baker is a former regional director general for CIDA's Southern and Eastern Africa division.

Deka Adem and her baby Bishar wait at a health station for children suffering from malnutrition in East Hararghe. (Margaret Evans/CBC)

"Ethiopia tends to do the highest proportion of its budget in Africa towards pro-poor policies so they've got the right idea now, and they've been putting these programs in place, but they still need help," he said.

Even irrigation networks in some parts of the country, which are more plentiful and established, however small in scale, are in trouble.

In the district of Dugda, a few hours drive south of Addis, you'll come across some of the region's famed lakes, but the water is clearly receding.
Even some areas where farming has traditionally been more stable are now dependent on emergency food aid. These women waited in the sunshine all day for a chance to register. (Margaret Evans/CBC)

We met a mother of six named Lomi Abu at an aid distribution centre where Canadian aid dollars are at work through a charity called the Canadian Foodgrains Bank.

The organization receives some funding from Ottawa which has earmarked $73 million worth of development assistance for Ethiopia in the 2015-16 fiscal year. That's in addition to $30 million worth of emergency humanitarian assistance announced in December.

Abu said her life over the past year has inverted her existence, from being someone who used to be able to help others, to one relying on food aid.

"If we don't have enough rain, we will [have to ] send away our children to be shepherds and workers in the house and fields of wealthy families."

Standing in front of her round, grass hut near the aid site, she said she can no longer feed her children three times a day and worries about the impact on their development.

Lomi Abu is a mother of six and one of those benefiting from Canadian aid dollars in the Dugda district of Ethiopia's Oromia region. (Margaret Evans/CBC)

Hundreds of women waited all day, for their turn to register for assistance, shielding themselves from the sun under parasols in turn shielded by a large round tree.  

Men unloaded giant sacks of grain with Canada written across them. 

People told us it was the first time since the great famine of 1984 that the community had to rely on food aid.

Ethiopia has one of the fastest-growing economies in Africa and the government has managed to cut the number of poor. However, poverty remains rife and more than 70 per cent of the population still rely on the land to survive. (Margaret Evans/CBC)

Those old enough to remember it, fear it.

"We lost all of our cows and animals," said 68-year-old Yao Tufa, a man in a suit and safari hat who says he walked 20 kilometres to get to the aid site. "We also lost a lot of people. The help of the foreigners saved our lives."

Too late in asking for help?

Some critics have accused Ethiopia of waiting too long to ask for international aid, mindful of being portrayed as a country always on the edge of starvation.

Ethiopian government and international NGOs have launched a $1.4-billion appeal to deal with the crisis, but only about half that amount has been raised so far. (Google maps)

Speaking at the site, Jim Cornelius, executive director of the Canadian Foodgrains Bank, said it's important for people to understand how much Ethiopia has changed since the days of that famine, fuelled not just by drought, but by civil war.

"People haven't really realized that Ethiopia has made tremendous progress since then. It's not just a place of constant hunger. But this is a particularly severe drought. It's stretching people way beyond their normal coping mechanisms. But the good news is that we've seen it coming." 

Maybe so. But the government and aid agencies remain far short of their joint appeal for $1.4 billion US to meet the demands of the next few months.

And this week Ethiopia's National Disaster Risk Management Commission said the number of districts severely affected by the drought has risen by nearly 20 per cent over the past three months.


Margaret Evans

Senior International Correspondent

Margaret Evans is the Senior International Correspondent for CBC News based in the London bureau. A veteran conflict reporter, Evans has covered civil wars and strife in Angola, Chad and Sudan, as well as the myriad battlefields of the Middle East.