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When the rains don't fall

Drought has returned to Ethiopia and is severely affecting a huge amount of the country's rural population. Concern's Laura O'Mahony spoke to some farmers who, despite being used to regular droughts, say they have never seen anything like this year's situation.

The tall trees lining the route sway in the light breeze. Yukka and cactus plants form boundaries for the small farms dotting the countryside. Purple jacaranda and crimson bougainvillea are in bloom. But the scene is deceptive. Climate change is making its mark on this beautiful landscape. Soil erosion is everywhere to be seen, the roots of the trees that line the roads exposed, the trunks leaning dangerously. Hidden behind the seemingly lush vegetation are barren fields. They call it the “green hunger”.

The crops of maize and haricot beans have withered and died. All around the leaves of coffee and eucalyptus trees are turning silver as they burn in the scorching heat. Some have dug up their fields already and replanted in the hope that the summer “Mahar” rains won’t let them down as the “Belg” rains have. They should have come in January but never materialised. The situation is affecting not just people in Ethiopia, but millions of others elsewhere in the Horn of Africa. North-eastern Kenya and Somalia, depend on the same rain cycle, which has failed them too.

In the meantime, as they pin their hopes on the next rainy season, thousands of subsistence farmers and their families in southern Ethiopia have been left with little or nothing. Many have eaten the seeds they would have planted for this autumn’s harvest. The only crop that is growing widely is “enset”, a banana-like plant native to Ethiopia and resistant to drought. Its root is ground up to make bread as well as a gruel or porridge. It may look healthier than the rest but it doesn’t contain the nutrients people need to survive. Malnutrition rates are on the rise.

SNNP is the most densely populated region of Ethiopia. The country’s population is estimated at 75 million and about 15 million live in this area. The average population density is 64 people per square kilometre. Here it is 132. In Wollaita, the zone where Concern is working it is 369 – almost six times the average. Many are marginal farmers surviving on a patch of land as small as one-fifth of a hectare – about the size of the average back garden in Dublin. The average family size is seven.

 “Even in a good harvest year, five months out of twelve there is a food gap,” says Concern’s Abraham Asha. “The area is too dependent on the rains and there is little resistance to shocks. That means the people here is very vulnerable.” So a bad harvest year like this one has a huge impact. The basic reason – low production. As well as its huge population, the fertility of the soil is being degraded. Fields aren’t left fallow, crops are not rotated, there’s a lack of fertiliser, landholdings are too small. But people don’t have any alternatives to farming. At a time like this, many contemplate migrating to survive.

The Ethiopian government has been trying to bridge the food gap by setting up safety net programmes to help people find alternative ways to earn an income. Concern is supporting their efforts. It is also constantly monitoring the situation to detect signs of malnutrition as part of its disaster risk reduction strategy. This year the signs are there.

We are in the district or “kabelle” of Dendo Offa. The land is being reclaimed for agriculture – another element of Concern’s disaster risk reduction strategy. A large group of people toil in the noonday sun hacking stones from the dry earth and building terraces along the hillside. Each clears a furrow of five metres for eight birr, just short of one US dollar. It will be possible to plant on the crests of the narrow canals, which in turn will act as irrigation channels when the rains come. Because it’s not just the drought that causes the problem. The rain does too. When it comes in torrents, the soil washes down the hillsides flooding lowland farms. Stone terraces will prevent that. In two years, 50 hectares will have been reclaimed.

This is the second year that mother-of-six Wogare Gojile has worked here. All the crops on her farm an hour’s walk away have failed this year. She has no income apart from the eight birr a day she earns on Concern’s soil conservation safety net project. Wogare is one of 300 people who benefit from the scheme.

“It helps me buy food and clothes. I can still send my children to school and I can still feed my animals,” she says. “It really helps me at a time like this when I have no other income. We should have been able to harvest by now but this year we haven’t been able to get anything from our lands because of the delay in the rains. I’ve lost cabbage and haricot beans.”

Wogare says that she can remember when the rains have been late for a month or so, but that she has never seen anything like this year. “This year is extraordinary. The drought has also created a shortage of animal feed. Our cattle are unproductive because they are hungry. Oxen are thin and can’t work the land. The cows aren’t giving milk. Our animals are starting to die.”

Dawit Dako can’t remember a year like it either. He is even worse off. Not only has he lost all his crops, he’s also lost all his animals too. With a wife and three children to support, the project is his only hope of surviving. “God willing the ‘Mahar’ rains will come,” he says, lifting his arms to the blue cloudless sky.