On November 22, 2015, the Orthodox Christian faithful at Delanta Wereda, 598km northeast of Addis Abeba in Southern Wello were celebrating the annual St Michael’s feast at the local Saint Michael’s Church.
An anomaly this year, affecting the age-old practice, is the drought and its impact on the livelihood of the farmers. The year before the farmers had contributed 34,000 Br to the church, remembers Tesfaye Ayalew who handles the contributions coming to the church. This year the contribution not only plunged to 15,000 Br, but most of it also came from opal miners and traders in the area.
Himself a farmer, Tesfaye applied 6,000 Br worth of fertilizer on his farm, a decision he regrets in retrospect. The drought is affecting his community, like many others in the country. It started with drought, contributing “to low crop production for both Belg and Meher harvests, poor livestock health, low water availability, and lack of demand for agricultural labour,” according to the October 2015 to March 2016 Ethiopia Food Security Outlook, released by FEWS NET (Famine Early Warning Systems Network).
“If I had saved this money, I would at least be able to buy teff. It would have helped me and my family to pass through this time,” he said.
Fortune met him as he paid a visit to his friend, Solomon Setegne, a priest at the same church, who is paid 900 Br a year for his service at the church.
Solomon has half a hectare of farm land, where he has sowed wheat, beans and lentils using fertilizer. The entire crop is becoming a total failure, with what is left becoming good only for animal feed. Fortune observed that the wheat which is sowed on 0.12ha of land is now a rippling gold, a colour that normally would have heralded good news if it were January, the harvest time. A year ago Solomon had harvested three quintals of wheat. This time gold means death for the wheat crop.
Moreover, the bean crop in his backyard is not going to give any yield. He says he is going to sell it for animal feed. With all crops in the area becoming animal feed, he does not expect to make much money from his labour.
Delanta is an area where the drought is getting worse, but is not yet the worst that can be experienced. The most affected areas in Ethiopia as of October are southern Afar and and northern Somali areas. These places are designated Emergency areas in the FEWS NET Outlook, with east and west Hararghe zones expected to become similar scenarios by January to March 2016.
There are five phases of classification of food security conditions. Phase One is Minimal, with households meeting their basic food and non-food needs with sustainable coping strategies. Phase two, Stressed, is where households have minimally adequate food consumption. The remaining three phases, Crisis, Emergency, and Famine, require urgent action. “Starvation, death, and destitution are evident,” in famine, according to the classification, while Emergency is characterized by “extreme loss of livelihood assets”. In Crisis, “households face food consumption gaps or are only meeting minimal food needs through unsustainable coping strategies.”
In Delanta, where Solomon offered this reporter Injera with shiro, and made coffee, the people approached by Fortune still have food in their homes and their children still go to school. The area could be in the Stressed Phase two level, sliding into crisis if the interventions are not adequate.
Fortune learnt during a two hour stay at the priest’s mud house that the community is facing severe water shortage. Normally, the community uses a distant stream, called Qaria Wonz, and springs for household use and ponds for their animals. Ponds around Solomon’s house are now dry, and they are going further to Dahana village in Kebele 02, where the pond there is also drying.
Data from the wereda’s Agriculture Office indicted that 21 ponds and springs have dried up, exacerbating the vulnerability of 27,000 people in 26 of the 34 kebeles of the wereda.
The water shortage is creating other health problems. A scabies outbreak in the wereda has affected 117 people in four kebeles, 21 people in one kebele are reported to have typhoid and 36, malaria. The problem so far has not caused any schools to close. Tesfaye expresses worry that if the outbreaks spread through schools, they could have major problems. So far animals are the reason students are missing class, as the children, in charge of herding the animals, now have to go farther to get water. Records from local schools showed 1,024 students missing classes as a result.
The local administration has facilitated for farmers, the sale of 8,716 heads of livestock so far, although prices are down by 10pc to 15pc.
“This decrease has come from the diminishing purchasing power,” said Tesfaye Alemnew, head of the Agriculture Office.
The shortage of water is also reflected in migration of bees from their hives in search of water. As Fortune was talking to Solomon, a neighbouring family had sent for him to come help them restrain the bees that were escaping from their hives.
This is something unusual especially at this time where water was expected to be available nearby, said Tesfaye, the church servant.
Bees fly farther to seek water and pollen, both in short supply now. The flowering of the lentils, which the bees relied on, lasted only briefly. Now it is being harvested, although the yield is much smaller.
The wereda is drilling boreholes for water. Tesfaye said the progress was not fast enough because of machinery shortage. They have distributed 40 fiberglass tankers to communities, with the rationing of water planned for when the problem becomes more serious.
Getu Yimer, 35, was working on a 1.5ha lentil farm with his 60 year old father. The yield is very small, and many pods were empty. A father of three, Getu, does not have his own land. He is considering leaving the area and may be travel as far as Addis Abeba, in search of work.
“If it was in a normal circumstance, I would travel to Wegel Tena, the nearest town, in search of daily labour. But now since everyone is doing the same, it will be difficult to find a job in the nearest towns,” he said.
When the Belg rain failed, Getu became one of 40,200 people identified as in need of food assistance in the wereda with a population of 150,000 people. In August he had received 15kg of wheat. A second round of distribution began at the end of October. Solomon had to sell three sheep to mitigate the crisis in his home
The wheat distribution will take place every month from now on, the agriculture office head said.
To combat health related issues, the Delanta’s health office is distributing water treatment tablets, antibiotics, and other medicines, according to Maereg Assefa, the office head.
“We are also screening children and mothers in one month interval to check malnutrition levels,” he said.
Three months ago, when Fortune visited the site, Delanta had suffered a total loss of its crops of lentils, bean and guaya (Fabaceae), which were cultivated on 5,392ha of land with an expected yield of 94,056ql. Among farmers who had lost their crop was Fetene Kassaye. That August, he and other farmers were still hoping for the rains to come. This hope has, however, vanished in the clouds. Now he has suffered the same loss with his wheat crop. When Fortune found him again, his sheep were grazing in his wheat farm.
Latest figures show that 50,995 people have lost 80pc or more of their crop. After January the wereda expects 83,916 more people that will need food assistance.
So far 12,060ql of wheat were distributed in two rounds – one in August and the second is still under distribution; two kebeles are yet to have their turn for the distribution. This distribution did not include farmers like Fetene, who are included under the productive safety net programme (PSNP). For those in PSNP, 135 Br was distributed per person from a contingency budget. Local officials are now considering giving them the value of that money in wheat.
To mitigate the drought the wereda administration has established a committee and is collaborating with Concern Ethiopia, an Irish-based charity working on poverty reduction, nutrition, risk and vulnerability. Prior to the ongoing drought the organisation was only working in development programmes at 10 kebeles. Right now it also added emergency as one of its mainstream responsibilities throughout Delanta.
Concern Ethiopia focuses on community mobilization, distributing nutrient foods for malnourished children, pregnant and breast feeding mothers. Far from Delanta, it is also operating in 13 weredas of Amhara state. So far Concern has provided fortified flour and edible oil for the malnourished. From 12,484 children measured for malnourishment, 129 were found with acute malnourishment, 1,097 moderately malnourised and eight, who are in critical condition, are being treated in a centre with specially created condition. Moreover, of 1,356 pregnant and breast feeding mothers, 582 are malnourished, according to data from the Agriculture Office.
“The worst is yet to come,” said Tesfaye, the agriculture office head. “There is a concern within the committee that the current situation may somehow not look alarming specially since almost all the members are young and have no experience of the infamous famine of 1974 or 1984. This may sidetrack them the coming season,” he continued.
In preparation to the coming Meher harvest, by January 2016, 33,000 vulnerable people are selected to get assistance out of the total 83,000 earmarked for support.
At national level, two weeks ago a bulk shipment of wheat was directly brought from the Port of Djibouti via railway while the purchase of six million quintals of wheat has already been awarded to suppliers. In dealing with health issues there are concerns that diseases caused by El Nino, such as meningitis, measles and malaria, may occur.
The fact that rain may come dis-proportionally may cause malaria, said Keseteberhan Admassu (MD), minister of Health. The Ministry has vaccinated 15 million people in October 2015 for meningitis in 280 priority weredas, that were vulnerable because of the drought. The government has also bought 200 million Br worth of antibiotics using money from the Ministry of Finance & Economic Cooperation (MoFEC).
Of the number of malnourished children sent to an in-stay, stabilization centre from January 2015 to the present, the mortality rate is estimated to be a minimal 0.2 per cent, Kesetebrehan told Fortune. He also claimed that there is a stock of nutrient food enough for 18 months. The government has also ordered local factories to produce more nutrient foods, as well as negotiating with companies in South Africa and Italy to get the same supply. Currently, the World Food Program is supporting the nutrient food production.
How far these interventions will go is yet to be seen. The FEWS NET outlook warns of more areas joining the Emergency phase. These include “lowlands in Arsi and West Arsi zones in central Oromia and some areas in the northeastern highlands, including parts of Wag Hemra and north Wello zones in Amhara.”
Until March, however, all of these areas are expected to remain in the Crisis category.