Famine looms again for the Afar people of Ethiopia

Times are the hardest in living memory for Ethiopia's nomadic Afar people. Sarah Lowe spoke to Denise Nichols, Valerie Browning was interviewed in Afar by Australian documentary film-maker David Brill.
For the Afar, life has always been a delicate balancing act. They walk a fine line between survival and starvation even under normal conditions. "These people are utterly reliant on the twice-yearly rain cycles," says Emergency Manager Denise Nichols, who recently returned from the Afar region. "If the rains fail, as they have done for 12 months now, they become very vulnerable."

The Afar are nomadic pastoralists. They constantly travel the stark desert landscape, driving their massive herds to find water and pasture. The herds are everything to them: their livelihood, their food source, their only wealth. "All the Afar's assets are invested in their livestock," says Denise. "Camels and donkeys are their transport. Cattle, sheep and goats provide meat and the dairy products that are their primary source of nutrition, especially for the children. All their other needs -- for medicine, clothing or grain -- they meet by bartering milk and meat in the market towns." Now the livestock are dead or dying. "The old people told us they cannot remember a time when so many livestock died," Denise says. Valerie Browning is an Australian nurse who lives and works with the Afar. She and her husband Ishmael Al Garod founded the Afar Pastoralists Development Association (APDA) six years ago.

"I am aware that Australians are going through the worst drought in white history," Valerie says, "but there are insurances built into Australian society. For the Afar there is nothing. If his animals are gone he is nothing, zero, finished. He has nowhere to go, there is absolutely zero employment, he can't come to a town and live. He has been roaming in a mobile situation ... all his life, he doesn't know any other life." "The cattle die first," Denise says. "We saw almost no cattle. The last to die are the camels. Everywhere we saw people walking for days at a time, with just a few surviving animals, looking for pasture, water or food aid. We met people who were very sick, very frail. It's only a matter of time before these people die." Denise recalls stopping at a tanker distributing water by a road. "The people we met had walked for three days just to find water for themselves and their remaining stock. They were painfully thin, their ribs showing."

The most urgent need, says Valerie, is keeping some animals alive. "I'm not talking about the whole herds," she says. "I'm talking about a selective breeding herd for each family, so they can keep milk in the families." Unless this happens, she sees disaster ahead. "The traditional Afar prediction is that there will be no rain in March and April. That is what the Afar clan elders are saying." If the last animals die and the rains fail again, "then it's lost, we have lost the game. We will have destitution, death, camps -- those ghastly dehumanising feeding camps. We can't let that happen." With 1.5 million people in the Afar region alone at risk of starvation -- and more than 14 million across Ethiopia -- the crisis threatens to eclipse even the 1984 famine.

Oxfam Community Aid Abroad is now supplying water for people and their livestock, gathering livestock carcasses for burning or burial, and vaccinating the remaining animals. Without disposal, the flies brought by the carcasses can quickly lead to massive diarrhoea epidemics -- deadly to people already weakened by hunger. "It is hard for people to understand why their dead livestock need to be burned or buried," Denise says. "It is extremely distressing for them. We have to do a lot of education about why this helps prevent disease." Australian aid is vital to the Afar, Valerie says. "Truly, the help we have received so far from the Australian public through Oxfam Community Aid Abroad is completely vital to us. Even with the stress that Australians are under at the moment, if they can assist the Afar, this is absolutely magnificent."

The Afar's nomadic way of life is one reason this region has always been so much poorer than other parts of Ethiopia. Government services have never met the Afar's needs, and literacy and other development indicators are very low. Oxfam Community Aid Abroad is working through APDA to bring mobile education and health services to the Afar, and to deliver aid during the current crisis. The development work will continue as much as possible, says Denise. "There is a huge need for development in the Afar. We cannot stop our literacy and health programs during the crisis, because they are what will assist people to survive next time."

Oxfam Community Aid Abroad is also providing food aid through local partners in Oromio Province, southern Ethiopia. "Food aid distribution is so important," says Denise. "The drought has already forced 23,000 people into displaced people's camps in Oromio. Food aid is a stop-gap that enables people to get through the hardest times in their own communities. If they are forced into camps, they are away from all their normal family and other support structures. They lose all their assets, so when the crisis is over they must start again from scratch." Famine now threatens 28 million people in Ethiopia and Southern Africa.

What does famine have to do with the price of coffee?

Ethiopia is one of the world's poorest countries; rated 158 out of 162 countries in the UN Human Development Index. For two decades, Ethiopia has imported food just to feed its own people. In the early 1980s, severe famine in Ethiopia hit world headlines with Bob Geldof's Live Aid campaign.

This year's food crisis has the potential to eclipse even that disaster. Like Southern Africa's food shortage, Ethiopia's current plight has complex causes. It is partly failed rains, when many are still struggling to recover from a drought in 2000 exacerbated by armed conflict with Eritrea. It is partly chronic poverty; when the average income is less than one Australian dollar a day, when life expectancy is just 43 years and a third of infants die of malnutrition already, it does not take much to push the population into crisis.

The most fundamental problem, however, is economic. Many farmers who once grew food crops have been encouraged to switch to cash crops, especially coffee, as a result of IMF programs and other factors. The government estimates that there are approximately 15 million households dependent on coffee for their livelihoods. Small farmers, most of whom work on less than half a hectare, grow 95 percent of the country's crop. Coffee has long been crucial to Ethiopia's economy, making up to 60 percent of exports. Both the farmers and the government have been hit hard by the staggering 70 percent drop in world coffee prices since 1997. Farmers are left without income, and the government with massive revenue falls and hugely reduced foreign exchange reserves, making them even less able to deal with the crisis.

Mohammed Ali Indris is a coffee farmer from Kafa Province -- the birthplace of coffee that gave the brew its name. "I have no other income, just coffee," he says. "I don't even have animals. I depend on coffee for all clothing, food, to pay taxes, children's uniforms and medical expenses. Coffee is everything for us ... Five to seven years ago I was producing seven sacks of red cherry and this was enough to buy clothes, medicines, services and solve so many problems. But now even if I sell four times as much, it is impossible to cover all my expenses ... I had to sell my oxen for only 400 Birr [$82] to pay back the loan I took our for fertilisers for corn, or face prison ... My brother has died and I have to help his four sons. Three of them can't go to school now because I can't afford the uniform ... We have stopped buying teff [the staple from which injira bread is made] and edible oil. We are mainly eating corn."