Father Hailegebriel Meleku, deputy secretary general of the Ethiopian Catholic Secretariat, said the country now is better poised to address its humanitarian problems, in part because church bodies have been mobilized during recent crises. Father Meleku is pictured in a November 2011 photo. CNS photo/Chris Herlinger

Climate change moves Ethiopian church to address food needs

By  Chris Herlinger, Catholic News Service
  • January 14, 2012

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia - Climate change-induced drought that has afflicted the Horn of Africa presents the opportunity for the Catholic Church in Ethiopia to work more closely with the government to address food shortages and development concerns, said an official of the country's bishops' conference.

Recalling when Ethiopian regimes in the 1970s and 1980s either did not have the capacity or the political will to face a series of famines, Father Hailegebriel Meleku, deputy secretary general of the Ethiopian Catholic Secretariat, said the country is now better poised to address its humanitarian problems, in part because church bodies have been mobilized during recent crises.

Father Meleku said the country's leaders, in partnership with neighboring governments, must begin to find new ways to address the adverse effects of climate change on vulnerable communities.

Ethiopia itself has escaped the serious food shortages that have devastated large parts of neighboring Somalia and forced hundreds of thousands of people to flee into Kenya and elsewhere. Some Ethiopians, however, have had limited access to food, posing a serious challenge to the country's leaders, Father Meleku said.

Underlying that challenge is the dwindling supply of water, a particular concern in the parched northern region bordering Eritrea. Father Meleku said securing adequate water supplies must be a government priority.

Lane Bunkers, Catholic Relief Services' country representative in Ethiopia, echoed Father Meluku's observation. The drought is forcing farmers to abandon centuries-long practices defined by distinct agricultural seasons, he said.

"That's changing because peasant farmers who rely on rain-fed agriculture can no longer rely on the rain," Bunkers said. "Land degradation and climate change are serious realities in Ethiopia."

Recurring drought and food shortages have spurred Ethiopian Catholics to voice their concerns at the international level.

In 2009, Ethiopian religious leaders, including Archbishop Berhanyesus Souraphiel of Addis Ababa, president of the Ethiopian Catholic bishops' conference, wrote to U.S. President Barack Obama in advance of the 2009 international climate talks in Denmark, urging him to adopt a strong "position and full pledge on sound climate change policy." They called such a stance a "moral and ethical imperative to ensure a preserved environment."

The conference ended with no formal agreement to slow greenhouse gas emissions, which scientists have said is the leading cause of climate change. Leaders from the U.S. and China -- the world's largest emitters of greenhouse gases -- left the talks promising to continue negotiating limits, but little progress has been made since.

The Ethiopian Catholic Church has convened regional meetings on climate change and has worked with its partners such as CRS and the church's Caritas network to initiate humanitarian projects focused on food security. One program finds the church having developed an early warning and disaster response system across Ethiopia and has provided humanitarian relief and emergency food during various crises.

The church also has focused on long-term solutions.

In the northern state of Tigray a partnership of international, national and regional Catholic organizations funded the construction of a 120-foot-tall dam that supplies water to about 35,000 people.

The project is one example of the church's presence in a country of 82 million people that is dominated by Orthodox Christianity. Less than 1 percent of Ethiopians are Catholic even though the Ethiopian Catholic Church traces its roots to some of the earliest Christian outposts that arose in the country.

The prospect for continued collaboration and the support of the government remains good, despite one disagreement over recent calls by the government to limit the number of non-Ethiopians involved in any denomination's missionary work, Father Meleku said. The church explained, he said, that non-Ethiopians are needed because of their expertise in development, health and education.

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