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Long awaited rains, bring more destruction to drought affected communities in Ethiopia

by Lily Partland, Save the Children | Save the Children - International
Friday, 22 April 2016 13:32 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Ethiopians are currently living through the worst drought in fifty years – yet here we are, trapped by floodwaters. 

The irony is lost on nobody.

Our four wheel drive is transporting me and my local colleagues to some of Save the Children’s programs in the heart of drought-affected Ethiopia. We wait in vain for the torrential rain to cease and the raging river blocking our path to subside. 

We’ve come to see the impact of this disaster first-hand, a crisis which has so far failed to fully capture the world’s attention, with so many others competing for airtime.

And now our plans have been thrown into turmoil by an excess of water.

Earlier that morning, as we prepared to set off on (what we thought was) a daytrip visiting health, nutrition and education programs, we heard the news it had rained heavily overnight in the area.

As the drizzle persisted, we drove through the muddy mess of a road until a car almost became bogged down, and we agreed it was time to turn back.

Instead we travelled to an accessible village nearby, where we met dozens of families who’d given up their nomadic life because of the drought. After their livestock perished from a lack of food and water, what choice did they have? They are among more than 10 million Ethiopians who now rely on food aid, and they had to go where they could access help.

The families told us this drought was far from over.

In fact, the worst could still be ahead, they said. If the current rainy season doesn’t deliver sufficient rainfall over an extended period of time, more people will be left hungry for longer, with the main harvest not expected to start till October.

I can smell the rot of dozens of animal carcasses that have been dragged away from the temporary stick and tarp shelters. In 2015, more than 200,000 animals died in this part of the Somali Region.

The bitter irony is that this rain – which has come much later than expected – while welcome, makes the work of people trying to help isolated communities more difficult, and kills many starving livestock, which are highly vulnerable to respiratory illness.

It is soon after departing the village that our luck finally runs out. We find our path blocked and with the sky darkening, eventually admit defeat and decide to stay put.

We spend a surprisingly cosy night, all of us sleeping in a single room bordered by thin mattresses and pillows. We play games, local staff tell epic tales, and I make shadow puppets – there’s no electricity here, just lanterns.

The following day, after saying our farewells and expressing our thanks, we hit the road again, and breathe a collective sigh of relief when we find the floodwaters have subsided.

We join up with a Save the Children mobile health team, and watch as they assess and treat children for malnutrition, diagnose and treat other sicknesses and vaccinate children against common illnesses.

There Asha, a striking woman in a colourful hijab, patiently tells us how the drought has impacted her life.

One of her children is severely malnourished, the other far from healthy. Her husband has a mental illness, which means he can’t leave their home to work.

So she must collect and sell firewood in town to make whatever she can to fill the bellies of her hungry babies - or at the very least, ease their suffering for a short time.

After an emotional conversation, Asha walks away carrying her baby. At the last moment she turns back and offers me a beautiful smile and wave.

And I hope our work will help garner the world’s attention towards this devastating drought in Ethiopia, and help us prevent the crisis from becoming a catastrophe.