Ethiopia’s worst drought in over 30 years wreaks havoc

Local mothers struggle to find food for their children as men migrate in search of work

From a dirt road overlooking the valley the landscape looks more like an abandoned quarry than what it is: the single source of sustenance for a community of thousands.

The parched, dusty hills are a patchwork of greys and browns. Farmers steer oxen-drawn ploughs through the small fields, their blades clinking each time they strike yet another stone.

Here in the Ingal mountains that straddle the border with Eritrea, the effects of Ethiopia's worst drought in more than 30 years are written into the landscape.

The failure of both of the main rainy seasons last year had a devastating effect on an area where virtually every family lives off the land.


It has left almost every household dependent on food parcels from the Ethiopian government and, by prompting many young men to conclude they must leave, it has caused a surge in the number attempting long and dangerous journeys, primarily to Saudi Arabia, South Africa and Europe, in search of work.

Of 962 households in the village of Agere Lokema, 40km from Adigrat, 286 are headed by women.

“We women would migrate as well if we thought we could find work,” says Abeba Teklehaymanot, whose husband’s departure for the Middle East left her looking after their children and half hectare of land.

At night, when the children sleep and the temperature dips, Teklehaymanot joins teams of locals working to irrigate land – part of a project, co-run by Trócaire, aimed at diverting water for use by the community.

Further down the valley, the work is beginning to bear fruit: a series of stone and wire-mesh dams has trapped water and increased soil fertility, allowing livestock to feed and landless families to plant crops.

Recalling a sequence that began with the failure of the harvest and the gradual depletion of families’ food reserves, Teklehaymanot says it was the elderly who first felt the effects of the drought. Then she noticed the animals weaken.

‘Women suffer’

“We used to have a lot of cattle but, because of the drought, there are far less,” she says. Before long the flow of outward traffic had increased.

Men would leave with the hope of sending money home, but it was always a long-term and dubious bet, Teklehaymanot says firmly, her frustration plain.

“The husbands leaving is making the women suffer more. It’s not making anything better.”

The Tigray region of northern Ethiopia is one of the most drought-prone in the country.

Some 40 per cent of its six million inhabitants – a largely rural population where the average family has six children and owns less than a hectare of land – are dependent on food aid.

The topsoil is thin; even a good harvest will feed families for just six months.

But the effects of the current drought are being felt far more widely. Together, the two main rainy seasons supply over 80 per cent of Ethiopia’s agricultural yield and employ 85 per cent of the workforce.

The alarming shortage of rain in the past year has left 10.2 million people in need of emergency food aid and put 18 million – close to a fifth of the population – at risk.

The reasons for the current shock are largely outside Ethiopia’s control. El Niño, a water-warming weather pattern that occurs in the Pacific Ocean every two to seven years, sets off a global ripple effect, causing unusually heavy rain in some parts of the world and drought elsewhere.

A so-called Super El Niño in 2015 left more than 60 million people in need of aid in 22 countries across southern and eastern Africa, central America and the Pacific, according to the United Nations.

In Ethiopia, a number of studies suggest, the effects were exacerbated by climate change, which has resulted in more frequent and severe droughts.

Today, Ethiopia is much better equipped to deal with drought than it was in the 1980s.

A national early warning system enabled it to detect looming harvest failures, while a national food reserve and Productive Safety Net Programme, a cash- and food-transfer scheme, has helped to mitigate the effects for 7.9 million people.

On a three-day visit to Ethiopia last week, however, former president Mary Robinson highlighted a global funding gap of $518 million for efforts to deal with the El Niño fallout in Ethiopia.

Robinson, who travelled with the chief executives of Irish aid agencies Concern, Goal and Trócaire in her capacity as UN Special Envoy for El Niño and Climate, said that with the world focused on migration, Brexit and conflict zones, it was difficult to garner attention for the problem.

"I don't think the impact of El Niño, aggravated by climate change, has received the attention that it should have from the international community," she said after meeting Ethiopian foreign minister Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus in Addis Ababa.

He stressed that, while Ethiopia found itself in the front line, it did relatively little to contribute to the problem: the country has one of the lowest per capita carbon emissions in the world.


On her three-day visit, Robinson spoke to affected communities in Tigray and received accounts of the situation from aid agencies and international organisations.

At mother-and-child health centres funded by Concern and Goal in Tigray, the focus is on detecting signs of malnutrition before it becomes severe.

Thousands of women come to these clinics to have their children weighed and assessed by medics before receiving food parcels and seeds (between them, the three Irish agencies provide seeds to 85,000 households in Tigray alone).

One of the women who was there during Robinson’s visit was Mebrihit Gebre (28) who brought her two-year-old daughter Rozina to be weighed.

She said the effects of the drought are etched on people’s faces. “Our faces changed. I lost weight. I got scars,” she says.

“It was very bad. I couldn’t find food for my child. I have been feeding her the same thing every day – I couldn’t find enough for her, because since the drought came the vegetables wouldn’t grow and we couldn’t get the cereals.”

In the shadow of the Gheralta mountains, at a clinic where about 1,000 breast-feeding mothers have come for check-ups, Nigsty Haylu, a woman in her early 30s who looks older, describes the past year as a “disaster” for the community.

“What we planted did not grow,” she says, contemplating whether to break up the six-hour walk home by staying with relatives on the way.

“The situation didn’t just harm us – it harmed our cattle, our sheep, everything we own. So we’re pleased we got through this season.”

Intermittent rain

Haylu sees grounds for hope. In recent weeks some rain has fallen and the grass is tentatively growing.

Yet, like everyone else in the Tigray’s vast countryside, her relief at the intermittent rain is tempered by two fears: that the rain could stop as abruptly as it began, or that it could herald floods that will wash away the thin soil.

The latter concern is preoccupying governments and aid agencies across the region.

El Niño is usually followed by the reverse-phenomenon of La Nina, the cooling of the Pacific. It too has the capacity to wreak havoc, leaving Ethiopia exposed to a second shock before it has had a chance to recover from the first.