Northern Ethiopia waits in vain for rain

By Paul Jeffrey [Jeffrey is reporting on the food crisis in the Horn of Africa for Lutheran World Relief and other members of the emergency alliance, Action by Churches Together (ACT).]
North Wello province, Ethiopia, late April 2000 -- It's the wrong color. At this time of year, the highlands around the village of Gubalaftu should be green. Yet after two years with little rain, today everything here is brown.

And yet people plow the land, sow a few seeds, and watch the skies. These days, hope is all they have to live on. There's not much food.

Eneinat Amara eats just once a day. The 57-year old woman tends a small fire in the round stone and thatch structure that is the traditional home to families here in the stark northern highlands of Ethiopia. She prefers to eat her only meal in the evening. "It gives me something to look forward to during the day," she declares, coughing. Along with her children and many others in this village who are weakened by an insufficient diet, she suffers from chronic respiratory problems. Eneinat cooks the little bit of wheat she received from the Lutheran Church of Ethiopia, a member of Action by Churches Together. It's not enough to go around, but the church's grain storage warehouse down the road is empty, awaiting a promised new shipment. Eneinat mixes in some moss and leaves, what are known here as "famine foods." Their use is a sign that life in the highlands has grown critical.

Much of the agriculture here is dependent on the shorter of two rainy seasons, which usually runs from March to June. These rains were bad in 1998, a total failure in 1999 and too little, too late this year. When the rain comes late, rather than planting their normal crops of sorghum, maize and barley, farmers plant quicker but less productive crops such as teff and chick peas.

The drought hasn't generated the dramatic suffering here in the northern highlands that it has caused in the southeast of the country, where in recent weeks foreign television crews have had no trouble finding starving children. Yet according to aid workers, a number of "stress indicators" warn that the situation here is already desperate, and may get worse.

Migration from rural areas to the cities or coffee-producing areas, for example, has increased in recent weeks, aid workers report, as traditional "coping mechanisms" have proved inadequate. "For some it comes down to a choice between migrating or dying," said Tesfaye Ejesu, director of the Lutheran World Federation office in Waldyia.

"If help doesn't arrive soon, those who can will leave their village, looking for alternatives, and many of them will die on the road," said Dereje Jemberu, a coordinator of relief operations in northern Ethiopia for the Lutheran church.

"People who are too weak to walk will stay at home. If we want to help people, now is the time. If we don't respond soon, we'll be facing a situation like 1984," when a massive famine killed as many as one million Ethiopians.

In some hard-hit areas, where farmers have no seeds left to sow and no animals left alive to sell, people have begun dismantling their houses, selling the wooden timbers or exchanging the straw from their roofs for food. Prices for firewood and charcoal, gleaned from an already heavily deforested landscape, have dropped as residents take whatever they can to the market. Animal dung is being burned for cooking rather than wood, meaning soil fertility will be reduced. School attendance has dropped in many communities, as families migrate in search of work or children stay at home because there isn't sufficient food to give them strength to attend classes.