Ethiopia

Extreme drought, worsened by global climate change rages through Ethiopia

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Nóirín Byrne

Ethiopia is experiencing its worst hunger crisis in 20 years and severe drought and the impacts of global climate change are intensifying the situation every day. On World Desertification and Drought Day, Trócaire talks to Abdellah and Abba Tesfalem about their battle for survival and feelings of purposelessness as sourcing drinking water becomes their primary job.

As drought worsens across Ethiopia, collecting water is the main task of the day for 23-year-old Abdellah from the Afar region of Ethiopia on Africa’s horn. Afar is extremely hot, the water is dirty, contaminated by monkey urine and the trek to collect it is horrendous. Afar townspeople like Abdellah who are surviving on little, if not nothing, find it a challenging journey to navigate in the extreme heat and with no sustenance.

“The journey for water is long. We have to leave early from the village while it is still dark. We walk through the riverbed. Then climb the mountains, then go down into a valley, then climb another mountain a little way to finally get to the water. That is the journey,” he explains.

“We drink water that monkeys go to the toilet in. It’s bad water. It makes us sick. You can see the animal dung at the other points of the journey. Monkeys and hyenas have been there,” Abdellah adds.

Abdellah is acutely aware of the struggle he is faced with every day. It is not something he is just used to and without help or support his situation won’t improve.

“I don’t like doing this! No one would want to do this. With water we can get jobs, children can get an education – we don’t have to spend so much time collecting it. If we have no water, the only thing we can do is collect it until we can’t stand it any longer,” he admits.

” I don’t have any more words to express how hard it is. I find it hard collecting water like this every day. I collect so little, then what I do get is not good. It has made us sick. What we need most and what we ask for is water,” he adds.

Abdellah’s story is typical of every man, woman and child in the region and without help from aid agencies like Trócaire nothing will change for him.

Abba Tesfalem (58) is an Ethiopian orthodox priest who lives in Tigray, the northern Ethiopia region besieged by armed conflict. When he was a child, his community was smaller, and rain came at fixed times. They used to easily grow crops like wheat and chillies because they knew when the rains would come and when to plant. Now drought and climate change has changed this. Rain is sporadic and planting crops isn’t an option.

“The climate and environment are totally different now. We could predict when it would rain back in the past. Back then it was very fertile: we had agriculture and education. You can’t compare it now,“ Abba Tesfalem explains.

“When there is a drought, a lot of people will go to the water supply system. Sometimes, we have to wait a long, long time.. a week sometimes. There was a time in March when there was nothing. There wasn’t enough to buy food from the market. The only option was to take a loan and to survive by buying bread,” he adds.

“I really struggle. I worry for my children and family. I have to put food on the table. I don’t want my family to pass a day without food. Every day I have to work to provide food for the family. That’s what I do, I don’t have time for other things apart from this,” he tells us.

The lack of water in the region Is having a severe psychological impact on locals in Ethiopia like Abba Tesfalem and his family.

“There is a hand pump not far from here, so we use donkeys, and we send our children there to get water or we go ourselves. Then we bring the water. When that dries up, there is a water supply system in the sub-district which is miles from here. That one is the one we have to wait for days at for water. If the water has run out in between, we go to that hand pump,” he says.

“When you don’t have water, all you think about is water. When you queue for water, all you think about is the water you hope to get. You worry that you won’t get water. It plays on our mind, it’s like a sickness. We all feel this way here. It’s a very difficult situation to think only of water,” he concludes.

Africa is the most vulnerable place in the world to global climate change

Ethiopia has already endured 10 major droughts since 1980. For the past four decades, the average annual temperature in Ethiopia has been increasing by 0.37 degrees C per decade, with the majority of warming occurring during the second half of the 1990s. Eighty-five per cent of Ethiopians live in rural areas and most rely on subsistence farming for survival. With increasing changes to the climate, Ethiopians are struggling to farm. The drought is worsening, and people are going days without food and water.