When Rain Fails

Ethiopians seek solutions to the worst drought in decades

by James Jeffrey with photographs by Petterik Wiggers

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As 9-month-old Aixet rests in her mother’s arms, Nurse Elsa Aduma wraps a special measuring tape marked in red, yellow and green around her tiny upper arm. Aixet’s eyes move quizzically from the tape to the nurse as Ms. Aduma reads out the measurement: three and three-quarters inches — in the red zone, meaning Aixet qualifies as severely malnourished.

“I haven’t enough milk,” says 32-year-old mother Amete Kahsay. “There’s not enough food in the house for me to eat properly.”

Though the clinic does not provide food supplements, the 40-year-old nurse refers her to one that may be able to help.

Operated by the Daughters of St. Anne, the health clinic in the town of Idaga Hamus sits just off the main road about 12 miles south of Adigrat, the second-largest city in Ethiopia’s northernmost region of Tigray. The dramatic scenery of Tigray — cliffs, gorges and flat-topped mesas beneath bright light-blue skies — is where Christianity took root in Ethiopia around the fourth century, its roots holding firm even as surrounding countries embraced Islam after the seventh century.

But the region’s stark beauty is tied to an arid climate. Ethiopia’s reputation as “the water tower of Africa” is due largely to its central highlands to the south. In contrast, the northeastern highlands, which include Tigray, have long endured inconsistent rainy seasons. This year stands as one of the worst for rainfall in living memory as the El Niño cycle results in unusually heavy rains in some parts of the world and drought elsewhere. Many in the region declare the current situation more severe than 1984, when drought conditions triggered a famine that led to the deaths of more than a million Ethiopians.

Yet the clinic is not inundated with malnourished children. Aixet is, for now, in the minority.

While images of the 1984 famine came to stigmatize Ethiopia for decades, the nation has taken steps to remedy this situation. In particular, in 2005, the government established the Productive Safety Net Program (P.S.N.P.), a welfare-for-work initiative that enables about six million people to work on public infrastructure projects, such as digging irrigation canals or building terraces for crops, for food or cash. P.S.N.P. also includes measures such as a national food reserve and early warning systems throughout woredas, local administrative organizations.

Such efforts have seen some success. Since 1990, child mortality in Ethiopia has fallen from about 20 percent to 5.9 percent. Nevertheless, some 40 percent of Ethiopian children suffer from malnutrition, hampering growth. Today, an imminent crisis remains a distinct possibility.

When initially faced with drought, Ethiopian minsters worked to contain the situation. The nation had already committed $192 million to drought-relief efforts. Further assistance from donor-supported social welfare systems was also promised. Before long, however, the estimated number of those affected had doubled to more than 8 million people — requiring an appeal for outside help. But precious time has been lost, and fundraising efforts are playing catch-up, further hampered by legal hurdles. Thus clinics, such as the one operated by the Daughters of St. Anne in Idaga Hamus, still wait for donor support.

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