Focus on looming drought in East Shewa

Vultures circle overhead, waiting for new prey. In the blistering 40-degree heat and bone-dry conditions, it does not take long before another cow slumps dying to the ground. This is Lady – a tiny village in eastern Ethiopia and scene of a looming crisis.

In the last 10 months the area has not seen a drop of rain. Cattle are dying, and the effects are now starting to hit the thousands of families in the area. Children are showing signs of malnutrition, and death rates have soared.

In Lady - the heart of the East Shewa region – 12 people have died in the last three months. The locals say on average one or two people of its population of 756 die of starvation each year. They blame lack of food. Officials are now warning of an impending emergency. The rains due in early June have not yet arrived.

DISASTER IN THE MAKING

Biruk Wolkeba, head of the Fentale Woreda [District: 9.40N 38.53] branch of the Ministry of Agriculture and a member of the five-member emergency warning committee, predicted that tragedy was a matter of days away. "If we do not get rains this time it will be a disaster," he said. He warned that the lack of rain and pasture was not just confined to his district, but stretched into zones of the Oromiya region and into Afar.

Biruk said a sample survey had found 39 percent of the 150,000 head of cattle owned by the local Kereyu people had died. In some villages, the rate was as high as 80 percent. The norm, even in this arid and dusty area, was about one to two percent. "It is very serious," he told IRIN. "The remaining cattle will die within 15 days to a month if they do not get any fodder. Every day more cattle are dying."

For the pastoralists the consequences could be devastating. Their livelihood depends on their animals. "Without cattle the Kereyu cease to exist," he said. "That is their income, that is their livelihood."

SIGNS OF MALNUTRITION APPEARING

Meanwhile, the effects of the drought are starting to take their toll of children and pregnant mothers. Their diet has been gradually shrinking since the rains stopped in August last year. Children in villages are also showing clear signs of malnutrition. Among pastoralists, some 80 percent of children are already stunted due to lack of sufficient food, and are now facing additional shortages.

In Lady itself, between 10 and 20 percent of the children are malnourished, according to officials. Their discoloured hair, limp limbs and bulging stomachs are a graphic reminder of the early effects of the hunger. Located in the middle of the Rift Valley, even at the height of the rains, the area receives a paltry 600 mm a year – the same amount as falls on the capital, Addis Ababa, over two months.

But the villagers in the 18 Peasant Associations (PAs) that make up Fentale say they have had poor rains for the last decade and that they have nothing left to fight off a drought.

Fentale is one of 14 woredas in East Shewa. The northern villages surrounding the district capital, Metahara, lie empty, as the Kereyu descend on Gulcha PA – home of the lush sugar plantation - searching for fodder. In six woredas, more than 4,000 families have left their homes and now sleep under trees outside the fertile plantation, hoping for scraps for their cattle.

Extending over 7,000 hectares and irrigated from the Awash river, the plantation is strictly off-limits to the Kereyu cattle. But what little the pastoralists could take from the government-run factory – which is closed for four months of the year and reopens in October - has now been consumed.

The cane tops on which the cattle had been feeding ran out over a week ago and the small patches of grass the Kereyu are now forced to cut and carry to their livestock is simply not enough to keep them alive. The neighbouring districts now lie deserted. Schools are also empty, as some 40 percent of children have dropped out, having been forced to trek in search of food and water. Sites for immunisations have also been abandoned.

The local administration has started handing out food aid to help – a one-off 170,000 kg consignment from the Oromiya regional government - but many say it is insufficient. Biruk said that even if fodder was brought in for the cattle it would still take many months before they would even begin to regain their health. He noted, however, that the cattle would never return to full strength. They were now in a very poor condition, with an almost zero milk yield - and if the rains did arrive, they would face death from cold.

Prices of fodder prices - for those who could afford it, had doubled to 11 Ethiopian birr (US $1.30) per bundle.

COPING MECHANISMS FAILING

Abdul Buru, from Kobo Woreda arrived at the woreda offices to obtain get food aid. "We have never seen the situation this bad. It is hard on the children and the pregnant mothers," he said. Like many of the pastoralists, he said food for the animals was the priority. Some of his fellow villagers had moved with their animals more than 200 km to Meki to try and feed their camels, but the cattle could not travel that far, he added.

Another pastoralist, Godna Jilo, 35, said he had lost six head of his herd of 20 cattle. More than 50 of his sheep had also died. He arrived with his family two months ago in search of pastures from Debiti, some 20 km away. Godna struggled to lift to its feet one of his emaciated cattle which had collapsed just 100 metres from the Awash river. "If we can get him to the river, it might help for a day or two," he said. "But even by the river there is nothing left for them. This one will probably die soon."

Shibru Nura from the Fentale Woreda administrative headquarters told IRIN that the lack of rain was due to massive deforestation of the area. But, he admitted, that the Kereyu were trapped in a vicious circle. As their animals died and they had none to sell, they would resort to chopping down trees for firewood, he said.

The once forested, but now bare, tracts at the foot of the mountains overlooking Fentale are a clear sign of the scale of the problem.

Shibru added that plummeting livestock prices – from 500 birr ($58) to just 50 birr ($5) a head – had served to aggravate the problem by wiping out the Kereyus' coping mechanism. "In the past, if there was a drought - as in 1985 - people still could sell their cattle, but this time the cattle are more affected and so the prices have dropped," he said. “The long years of poor rains have gradually taken effect on the cattle, so now there is nothing left of them."

He said the situation was most acute in Fentale, where most of the population of between 33,000 and 74,000 are pastoralists. In other areas, where crops were cultivated in addition to keeping cattle, people had been able to survive on what they harvested. "But that is running out," Shibru warned.