One of the youngest members of a family farm co-operative in the field as his uncles plough new land for tomatoes. The child will be part of a new generation of Somalis who will grow up without the nomadic life of his ancestors Photo by Michael Swan.

Horn of Africa facing worst drought in 60 years

  • September 20, 2015

JIJIGA, ETHIOPIA - At the end of June the Famine Early Warning Systems Network of the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization issued a warning about dry conditions in Ethiopia, Somalia and the rest of the Horn of Africa. On July 5 the UN called it “the worst drought in 60 years” in the Horn of Africa, with Ethiopia and Somalia worst hit.

Travelling through the affected Somali province of Ethiopia in August, everywhere I went people spoke of the failure of this year’s rains.

“This year we have a big fear because of a shortage of rain,” said Fr. Teklebirhan Yemataye in Jijiga. “We don’t know what will happen.”

“We call this a drought in which one camel carries another camel,” said Jijiga Catholic development office manager Muluken Asnake.

The phrase means that as herders are forced to sell their livestock rather than watch them starve, prices are depressed. Thus, when a man with two camels sells one, the supplies he can buy from the sale can be easily carried by the remaining camel.

As Muluken and I travelled through Togo Wuchale Kebele an hour east of Jijiga, farmers stopped us to show us their dry wells. There are 53 wells in the area originally drilled 70 years ago by Italian missionaries. Some of them are as deep as 55 metres. For the first time ever, they’re all dry.

This is the frontline in the war on climate change. When Pope Francis writes in Laudato Si, “This is why the Earth herself, burdened and laid waste, is among the most abandoned and maltreated of our poor; she ‘groans in travail,’ ” he’s talking about the landscape of southern Ethiopia. When the Pope reminds readers of “the intimate relationship between the poor and the fragility of the planet” he is telling us that drought in a far off country isn’t a marginal or scientific issue. It’s a human issue that touches the whole human family.

The men we met in togo Wuchale Kabele told Muluken about members of their families who had fallen into the wells trying to draw water from a great depth, back when there still was water. They spoke of children and livestock falling into the wells. They asked whether the East Hararghe Catholic Social Development Organization could cap the wells and provide either pumps or a motorized system for drawing the water in buckets. Drawing water by rope from 50 metres down has left their hands cut and swollen.

They call it “milking water.”

They also ask about the possibility of drilling a new, deeper well.

Abdulai Hassoun, a community elder in Meknis sub-kebele, spoke about the coming disaster.

“Now our first priority is to drill a bore hole,” he said. “As you see the crops are drying. It’s 20 kilometres to drinking water.”

His family has been selling its animals for money, but the money won’t last long.

By the time I arrived back in Toronto the Famine Early Warning Systems Network was reporting widespread livestock deaths throughout the region.

Abdulai Hassoun lived through the famines of 1973 and 1984-85. He has never seen the country this dry. In early August he was very worried.

Along the way we met a woman drawing water from a 40-year-old cistern used to collect rain water. As she was loading plastic jerry cans onto her donkey’s back she told us the water used to be good for drinking. A glance at the brownish-green liquid established that was no longer the case.

“We have three priorities,” Mukulen told me. “The first one is water. The second one is water. And the third one is water.”

Near the village of Muhammed Ali, the development organization of the Hararghe Catholic Secretariat has built a sort of artificial lake lined with plastic sheeting to collect and preserve rain water. They’ve planted drought-resistant bushes all around it to slow soil erosion from the constant wind. They call it the GTPALE Project and they’ve built it with money from the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace and Secours Catholique Caritas France using a Sudanese design. It’s almost complete, except for the water.

A big puddle of brown water at the bottom of it attracts an unlikely few waterfowl to the middle of the desert. But the water level is 20 or 30 centimetres below the pipe that leads out of the artificial lake, where the water would be fed into tanks to be used for irrigation.

At my hotel back in Jijiga I buy a bottle of mineral water. The blurb on the side of the bottle says: “The rain that falls over the Awash Basin of Ethiopia, after sifting through layers of sand and rocks for thousands of years, becomes a crystal clear, refreshing mineral water. On the receiving end of this precious commodity is the modern mineral water treatment and bottling plant of Vita Springs. As a result, our customers, starting with you, can enjoy the taste and health benefits of a perfectly balanced, clean mineral water.”

Even in a drought, some of us drink.

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