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IDAGA HAMUS, Ethiopia — Inside a health clinic in northern Ethiopia a nurse wraps a special tape measure around the upper arm of 9-month-old Aixiet, cradled in her mother’s arms.
It reads red — “severely” malnourished, according to Elsa Aduma, a nurse at the center run by the Catholic Daughters of Saint Anne.
“I can’t produce enough milk as there’s not enough food for me to eat at home,” says Aixiet's mother, 32-year-old Amete Kahsay, gesturing to her breasts. “Can I get something here for my baby?”
“We can’t do anything,” Aduma says, adding the mother might be able to find Ready-to-Use Therapeutic Food (RUTF), a fortified peanut butter-like nutritional supplement with a high vitamin and mineral content, at a nearby government-run clinic — though she can’t be sure.
By some estimates, Ethiopia’s current drought may be the worst the country has seen in 50 years. But, so far, there are no scenes reminiscent of 1984, when Ethiopia’s most infamous drought contributed to more than one million Ethiopians dying.
This is due to a partially successful response from the Ethiopian government, which has thus far managed to prevent a famine. Still, there are many going hungry, and a crisis could be imminent. And the government’s mixed success on the issue means that international efforts are lacking.
“Information got to the world’s media late,” says Sebhatu Seyoum, social and development coordinator for the Adigrat Diocesan Catholic Secretariat (ADCS), a non-profit faith-based welfare organization trying to raise funds to assist the likes of the Idaga Hamus clinic in Ethiopia’s most northern Tigray region. “People are not starving but they’re close to starving. We need to address this moment right now, before it gets worse.”
Tigray — a land of cliffs, gorges and flat-topped mesas beneath bright light-blue skies — has always suffered more erratic rainy seasons than the central Ethiopian highlands to the south, where the typical three-month-long rainy season contributes to Ethiopia’s continental status as the water tower of Africa.
But the severity of this drought stems from events beyond Ethiopia’s control or prediction — ocean warming trend El Niño — compounded by global warming — is causing unusually heavy rains in some parts of the world and drought elsewhere.
Neighboring Somalia has about 3 million people hit by crop failures and food shortages; Central America has about 3.5 million people; in Pacific nations about 4 million people may go without food or drinking water, according to the United Nations.
Initially, Ethiopia tried what many in the West complain developing countries don’t do enough of: tackling the situation itself, employing a sophisticated food security network developed over decades since the 1984 famine.
The Productive Safety Net Program (PSNP) is a welfare-for-work initiative enabling about 6 million people to work on public infrastructure projects in return for food or cash. In addition, there’s a national food reserve and early warning systems throughout woredas, local administrative organisations.
The country’s ability and means for providing emergency relief have changed beyond recognition since 1984. Additionally, the circumstances of this drought are very different: the 1984 famine was also driven by civil war in the north.
Today, Ethiopia is a much more stable country both politically and economically, capable of self-help and robust action.
But proactive internal efforts were strained as the drought took effect: estimated numbers of those affected doubled between June and October to 8.2 million. Hence, Ethiopia is asking for help.
“We had one cow but had to sell that for food. Other people’s animals have lost so much body weight they can’t be sold,” says 80-year-old farmer Berhe Kahsay during afternoon coffee at his home in Awo, a small town reached through numerous military checkpoints due to proximity to the Eritrean border. “This kind of drought is due to the climate, and it’s becoming worse due to climate change. We hope God will bless us with positive change.”
If not, Ethiopia will be competing for international funds with other grave humanitarian crises, such as Syria, Yemen and the refugee crisis. And the bureaucratic international donor system is not known for its speedy responses.
The government has since been criticized by aid agencies for delaying and not admitting the severity sooner while trying to maintain the narrative of Ethiopia’s great economic renaissance, achieving about 10 percent annual growth for the last decade.
Then there’s the hurdle of compassion fatigue: 2015 has seen crises all over the world overwhelm headlines, governments and NGOs.
Aid agencies warn this drought could impact Ethiopia’s long-term prospects, with significant gains made over the years in food security, education and health are now in jeopardy in parts of Ethiopia. “Consequences could ripple through generations,” says the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund.
To the east of Tigray is its even more arid regionally neighbor: the Afar, famous for its Danakil depression — the hottest place on earth.
“This area is normally drought-affected, so the life of the community depends on the government and NGOs,” says 40-year-old Dawit Hegos, a schoolteacher in the small Afar town of Mawo. “This drought is a big problem. It’s unreasonable to expect the government to do everything; other countries with crises need help — it’s not just Ethiopia.”
About a mile from the school is a dam built by ADCS with foreign funds in 2012, creating a small reservoir for the surrounding area’s livestock.
“Before the dam we had no access to water and had to take cattle far away into the hills to try find rivers,” says Hussein Esmael, a member of the local militia, his AK-47 perched on a shoulder. “Now it’s needed even more as animals don’t have strength to go long distances to find water.”
From many of those living in Tigray and Afar comes a common and ominous refrain: “The animals die first.” Those working for NGOs now scrabbling for funds point out that historically the effects of a drought get worst from about January onwards, when people have used up all their reserve food stocks.
Already people are cutting back on food. For some a meal consists of coffee and bread, or injera — a spongy pancake-shaped bread — with a little salt, the usual accompanying vegetables and meat sauces absent.
“There are a lot of mothers coming to us saying, ‘I have nothing in my breast, give me something for my baby,’” says 28-year-old Solomon Sibhat, a clinical nurse at a health center in the small town of Alitena. “It has got worse. But we have nothing to help. We say we are sorry.”
Foreign financial assistance is arriving, totalling about $167 million so far, combined with the Ethiopian government committing an unprecedented $192 million to help prevent deaths from the drought.
But the overall emergency response could cost $1.4 billion, according to aid agencies, especially if El Niño quashes Ethiopia’s next rainy season. The United Nations estimates such a situation could result in more than 15 million Ethiopians suffering food shortages, acute malnutrition or worse by mid-2016 unless donations increase.
And that mushrooming figure may well prove an underestimate once again, if the current trend of aid agency press releases with ever-increasing numbers is anything to go by.
“We really feel guilty when we see what we are supposed to do but can’t because of lack of resources and capabilities,” says Sister Azalech, director of the clinic at Idaga Hamus.
When asked what needs to happen, among the nun’s reply in Tigrinya one word stands out clearly: “Geunzeb.” Money.