By Andrei Engstrand-Neacsu in Wolayita
International Federation of Red Cross And Red Crescent Societies
In Wolayita, one of the most affected areas of Ethiopia, recurrent drought has reduced to almost nothing the availability of food for a chronically food-insecure population. The seasonal rains failed last year and again in the first two months of 2008. Crops that would normally have helped to sustain families through the past four months have not been available.
In the village of Bibiso, for Alena Seta and his wife Alkase Ayele the food distribution could not have come at a better moment.
‘We already ate all the planting seeds we had. Without rain there was no reason to plant. We ate the cow; sold the ox. The sheep died. A family member gave me a calf but it is too young and skinny to be of any use,’ says Alena.
This morning the children had some buna (coffee) and some maize. Lunch does not figure on the family menu. For diner Alena considers cutting the inset, also calledfalse banana tree and boil the potato like fruits inside its trunk.
Families have not managed to produce any food at all for the past nine months. Cows and sheep that are usually sold to provide cash to buy food have also died or are too weak to sell. Planting seeds have dried up or been eaten.
Each village has a traditional leadership structure called Timata, a council of elders which gives advice, rules and delivers judgments. Some 40,000 beneficiaries were identified for a four-month emergency food distribution.
Alena’s neighbour, Ingda Birhanu, is a Red Cross volunteer since 1997. The 37 year-old farmer shares the same living conditions and problems as his neighbours. He labours a quarter of a hectare of land belonging to the government which even in a good season will not produce enough to feed his family of four.
Birhanu’s only income is from selling vegetables or from odd jobs in town. He can not afford renting ox for ploughing, so just like his neighbour, he uses tools that one would describe as prehistoric.
But the Red Cross volunteer does not even question his availability to help others. ‘Thank God, I am healthy and so is the rest of the family. My cow is alive. I should not complain,’ he says while patting the animal whom he shelters under the same roof as his family.
Like Birhanu, 200 volunteers from Lera, Damota Pulassa, Sodo, Boditi or Bibiso have answered the call of the Ethiopian Red Cross.
The current rise in prices over basic commodities in Ethiopia has contributed to a further deterioration in the food security situation of the most vulnerable people. The Ethiopian government estimates that 4.5 million people are in need of emergency food aid, more than one million more than an earlier estimate of 3.4 million. According to authorities, only 33 per cent of the food requirement can be covered.
‘It is a combination of poverty, minimal assets and high food prices which make it difficult for families to access additional provisions from an already weakened market’, explains Nancy Balfour, disaster management coordinator for Eastern Africa at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC), stressing that climate change patterns are obvious in the current crisis.
Drinking water is yet an additional problem. Across the area 40 wells dried up because of rain shortage but also because they were hand dug and only 10 metres deep. All the 80 water springs have dried up as well. Children are sent to fetch water from the Shappa river, up to three hours walking distance away. The Ethiopian and Swedish Red Cross are already planning spring protection activities with two springs repaired during the coming months.
‘Families do not recover quickly from food crises and rains do not produce immediate food,’ adds Balfour. Red Cross Red Crescent estimates that it takes three to five years of continuous support and favourable conditions for a community to achieve complete recovery.
Revival work is about to be launched alongside emergency relief. This would include activities that would enable affected families to possess tools and seeds as well as livestock as soon as there is adequate rain to plant or graze animals.
In the longer term, farmers and pastoralists need more drought-resistant production systems. In March 2008, the IFRC has launched a 45 million Swiss franc long-term food security initiative targeting 15 countries across Africa, including Ethiopia. It aims to improve overall food security for families at high risk from drought and other climate related disasters and assist in building resilience so that the rapid escalation of malnutrition can be avoided in future.
– – – – – – – – – –
Andrei Engstrand-Neacsu is Federation’s Communication Manager for Eastern Africa