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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Drought in the Horn of Africa

Air Date: Week of

Ethiopia is in the third year of a drought that threatens more than eight million people. Rachel Staab (STAB) of Oxfam UK discusses the severity of the situation with host Steve Curwood.


CURWOOD: You remember the photos: babies, brown and listless, with arms like twigs, bulging bellies, and enormous eyes, dying from starvation. This was the image of Ethiopia in 1984 and 1985, when as many as a million people perished during a massive famine caused by drought and the slow response from richer nations. Today, after three years of another drought, experts say Ethiopia is headed for an even worse calamity. Once again, the aid is coming too slowly. People are already dying. And the drought is spreading to Somalia, Sudan, Kenya, Eritrea, and Uganda. Rachel Staab works for the relief organization Oxfam. She recently returned to London from some of the worst-hit areas.

STAAB: It took us a day to reach the capital of this particular zone. And when we got to the capital, we learned that people had not had food for two months. The nearby river had dried up for the first time in living memory. And one of the families I met there, the grandmother showed me her one-year-old grandson. Their story was heart-rending, because they had heard that there was food in this particular town. They had lost all their livestock. So they picked up everything, they walked for three days. And when they got there they found that the food had finished. And I don't think that child is still alive today.

CURWOOD: This seems so incomprehensible. I mean, this morning I got up, I went to my refrigerator, I had my yogurt, my granola. And I didn't think about eating. And yet you're saying that people haven't eaten for two, three months. Their animals are dying.

STAAB: That's right. Some of the people I spoke to showed me wild berries that they're having to depend on. And they've been using the seeds from palm trees to sort of scratch some nutrition from the side of the seed. They've also been now digging up palm trees and using the roots of palm trees to boil up broth. I mean, that's how desperate it's becoming in certain parts of Ethiopia.

CURWOOD: It's been three years. It seems like a long time for this drought. But this is a pretty arid region, right? I mean, how unusual is the three-year drought?

STAAB: I think the Somali region of Ethiopia, as it's called, is quite used to dry weather. But I think three years running is really too much for them to cope. But they have coped in the last two years. And this third year without rain is really the last straw for them, and it's particularly because of the livestock, which they depend on. About 90 percent of livestock in certain regions have died. And as a result, people have lost their income, their wealth, their everything.

CURWOOD: Is food really enough here? You point out that many animals have died, much of the livestock have died, which is how people sustain themselves in these somewhat nomadic cultures. So even if they get food, what type of life will these people be able to return to?

STAAB: Of course, that's a long-term issue. At the moment, the food and water, clean water, and medical help is what's required to keep people alive. And obviously, in the long-term, we need to be looking at perhaps restocking, but that's an issue which I think has to be addressed further down the line.

CURWOOD: After the famine in 1984, Ethiopia had been trying to build up its food reserves. What happened?

STAAB: What happened was that last year the reserves were drawn upon heavily, and the agreement to replenish the food reserves was not fulfilled. And as a result, the reserves were allowed to drop very low. And when the food was needed for the Somali region, it just wasn't there.

CURWOOD: Who's responsible for not replenishing those reserves?

STAAB: Well, it's a complicated set-up between the Ethiopian government, the aid agencies, and the donor governments. And a number of donors didn't replenish. So, I wouldn't want to blame the international community totally, but I think there was certainly a time lag that put a lot of pressure, and led to people going hungry in the Somali region.

CURWOOD: I understand that rain is expected next month, in June. What does it mean if these rains come? What does it mean if these rains don't come?

STAAB: In the worst-affected drought regions, at the moment, there still hasn't been very much rain. And the main rains were due in mid-March. So they've gone a month and a half without their main rains. In the highland areas, it's slightly different. The rains are due in mid-June. If the rain doesn't come in the highlands, then that means that not only are the 2.3 million people at risk in the Somali region, but it's going to widen out. And what we're seeing, and what we've been seeing for the past month, is likely to take place on a much bigger scale. And that could be a major catastrophe. If it rains in the highlands in mid-June, what we're also going to see is a crisis, I think, because we have to pre-position food that's coming into the country at the moment. And I don't believe that's being done fast enough, because what happens when the rains come is that areas will be cut off. And if food isn't pre-positioned in those regions, then you will see people going without food for a long period. We've got a window of about six weeks where we need to move food into the highlands, and pre-position the food as fast as we can. We are looking at a very critical few months for Ethiopia.

CURWOOD: Rachel Staab is with Oxfam. She recently returned from Ethiopia. Thank you so much.

STAAB: Thank you.



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