- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 5, 2006

KELAFO, Ethiopia

There is a grim sameness to the horizon in south- eastern Ethiopia. The endless brown land meets blue sky without the accents that mean life: no green tufts of grass, no beige cattle, no purple rain clouds.

The only colors that dot the vast, parched landscape are the startling crimson and indigo shawls of young women who walk for days across the baked earth in search of water, work or help.

The searing heat and absent rains are a lethal combination familiar to people in the lowlands. Their crops are failing, their herds are dying, and their villages are teeming with people who are starving, sick or scared.

This is the drought of 2006, an environmental collapse that the United Nations says could affect 11 million people on the Horn of Africa and Sudan, including 1.75 million Ethiopians.

The United Nations will make a new appeal for the Horn tomorrow.

“My cattle are dying, my people are dying,” said Omar Ahmed, a teacher and father of four. He pointed to the village cistern, whose water levels were dangerously low. “There is no rain, and the water we take from there is no good anymore. We need rain, rain soon.”

Constant crisis

The United Nations is seeking about $166 million to mitigate the drought and provide emergency relief in Somalia, Kenya, Tanzania, Djibouti and Ethiopia. Contributions are running about two-thirds behind.

“Ethiopia, the whole Horn of Africa is a very vulnerable part of the world,” said James Morris, executive director of the Rome-based World Food Program. He said poverty, scant infrastructure and lack of development increase the effect of unreliable weather.

Because the Horn of Africa often does receive rain and give life, it is different from the dry zone across central Africa, devastating parts of Malawi, Zimbabwe, Zambia, Sudan, Chad, Niger and the Central African Republic.

Unlike many food emergencies that the United Nations and other agencies deal with, the East African drought never has been the kind of crisis that can be resolved with an airdrop of high-calorie biscuits.

This is a “green famine.” There are plants, but few are edible, and it’s a complex and slow-building phenomenon that is rooted in uncontrollable weather patterns and exacerbated by government policies and, of course, human nature.

Dangerous way of life

Most of the people in these parts are pastoralists, herding camels, goats, sheep, cows or camels to pastures and waterways. When the land withers and cracks, the animals weaken and die. The nomads often do, too.

Local officials and foreign aid specialists note that the Ethiopian government routinely has neglected the vast and sparsely populated eastern and southern sectors of the country that border Somalia and Kenya, in part because of the tribal affiliations and persistent poverty of these regions.

The government has not done enough to stabilize the fragile region, acknowledged Simon Machele, the director of Ethiopian government’s disaster preparedness and prevention agency.

“The Somali [region] is very difficult, and we have unique problems there,” he said. He noted the historic lack of development and investment in the region, whose inhabitants have far more in common with the Somalian culture just across the border than they do with Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s distant capital.

“As long as there was nothing to get out of the area, there was no reason to put anything in,” Mr. Machele said. “In terms of health, roads, water, little has been done.

The paucity of wells and irrigation systems means that agriculture is always at the mercy of the rains and health care is whatever residents can get. Meanwhile, the lack of paved roads makes it difficult to conduct normal trade or deliver assistance. The one resource, the mighty Shabelle River, is barely tapped.

Historically, the nomads have not much minded the lack of development, but recurring droughts have hardened their lives and changed their ways.

Bracing for the worst

With more than a month to go before the “deyir,” or short rains, pastoralists in this desolate and impoverished district already have stretched their coping mechanisms to the edge.

Herders have come into the towns for help and support. Townspeople have taken in distant relatives who are worse off than they are.

Many families have cut back to one meal a day and scarcely can afford the staples: camel milk, pasta and seasoned goat meat — closer to Somalian cuisine than Ethiopian.

A withered old merchant, Ebla Hejin, sells her tomato paste by the teaspoonful, and single cubes of chicken bouillon. Women buy a tin cup of loose corn and rice, but are unable to afford the costlier spices. In some cases, grains and bean prices have tripled in the past four months.

Business is so bad that Mrs. Hejin complains she is forced to sit in the sun all day to make smaller sales, instead of selling larger quantities in just a few hours. Nomads used to buy 22-pound bags of rice and all the seasonings as they would need for a month. Today, she said, “people buy for one day at a time.”

Shukri Muhamad Moussa, a slight figure in a billowing red and gold shawl, said hunger makes her visit distant fields at night, going by donkey to collect the firewood she sells at about 11 cents for a small bundle.

“I have six children, and there are five others living us with now,” said the woman, who thinks she is 20 to 25 years old. “I don’t have any income, and this is not enough to feed us.”

Desperate times

Inevitably, some of the lengths people go to hasten death. In February, Somalian clans fought a running gunbattle for control of a dam and fertile farmland, killing more than a dozen people to obtain scarce resources.

In rural Kenya, Masai leaders have permitted families to marry off barely teenage daughters so they could collect cattle dowry to restock their depleted herds. And in Ethiopia, herders have begun grazing their hungry camels in farmland by night, creating economic havoc for farmers by destroying the scant crops of maize, sorghum and spring onions.

“This is where the conflict comes from,” said Dr. Sadik Mohamad, a physician who has been traveling through the district. “They get along when there is enough to share, but there isn’t anything anymore. People are desperate.

Dr. Mohamad is treating children and, increasingly, adults, for ills associated with malnutrition and dehydration — diarrhea, infections, measles and other conditions that prey on the weak.

UNICEF has begun an outreach program to weigh babies and evaluate their risk of starving. The 10 cribs in the critical care feeding center at the hospital the city of Gode are always full — occupied by tiny infants with wizened faces who are too weak to cry.

History repeated

Ethiopia, a mainly agrarian and pastoral nation, has throughout its history been vulnerable to droughts, floods, pests, failed harvests and unrelenting poverty. Persistent food shortages have documented in the country’s long history.

Ethiopia became synonymous with famine in 1985, when Sebastiao Salgado’s harrowing photographs inspired Bob Geldof to produce the “Live Aid” concerts. Families, celebrities and corporations dug into their pockets, contributing $60 million overnight. More than 20 years later, Ethiopia remains a top recipient of emergency aid, but it gets little development assistance.

Ethiopians are acutely aware that they are dependent on a distant government and foreign donors to survive in a relentless land where the old strategies no long work.

Just off the dusty main road of downtown Gode, near the Somalian border, several families have built a pen for their remaining cattle and sent their children to bring back as much tall grass, sweet leaves and hay as they could find and carry. It is an incongruous oasis for five rattle-ribbed cows.

“We tend them like the babies in the hospital,” said one woman sadly. “We must keep them alive, so we may eat, drink and live.”

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