Dec 2, 2015 – For those of us old enough, some of the images from Africa that might have at times haunted our television screens for the last few weeks will have taken us back more than a quarter of a century. All those years ago, Bob Geldof mobilised the world with ‘Band Aid’ and ‘Live Aid’, and raised awareness and funding to support those affected by famine and drought in the Horn of Africa.
Yet here we were some 30 years later and the same old scenes are playing out once more in some parts of this great continent.
On the dusty plains in Ethiopia’s east, the rotting carcasses of cows, goats, donkeys and camels bake under the hot African sun. They are fodder for hungry vultures and stealthy hyenas. Until recently, everything was going well. But a few months ago, things changed and many if not all farmers in certain areas in Ethiopia had to make the difficult choice to sell their possessions and abandon their lands and their pastoral life. They are being forced out when many of their goats and cattle died from the effects of the drought.
Livestock and agricultural type livelihoods are the lifeblood of these arid lowlands, their milk providing a vital source of nutrition, while the animals themselves are a commodity for trade. Here, wealth is defined by the number of cows and goats one owns rather than money. Hundreds of thousands of livestock have perished from the drought in Ethiopia this year, according to local government officials, with many more expected to die before the year’s end.
Many of the farmers in the drought-affected areas didn’t see this situation coming. At the beginning of 2015, rainfall forecasts showed a relatively normal year ahead. It was only in May, after the smaller Belg rains failed, that an El Niño weather pattern was declared. That pattern is predicted to be the strongest on record. The failure of the Belg rains meant that the planting season was limited and when the typically strong Kiremt rains between July and September were poor too, in some areas for the first time since 1984, the alarm bells sounded.
As a result, the rate of severe malnutrition is increasing rapidly, particularly among children, with more than 350,000 expecting to need lifesaving therapeutic treatment this year alone. By January, it’s predicted that 15 million Ethiopians will need food aid. That number is roughly over three times the population of Ireland.
Such is the magnitude of this emergency that the Ethiopian Government has revised up its emergency funding appeal from $331.7 million in August to $839.9 million to the end of 2015. Time is running out to procure enough food to meet these needs. And all this is before fully measuring the humanitarian impact of the poor Kiremt rains — the worst in 30 years for much of the Ethiopian highlands, which produce 90 per cent of the nation’s crops. In those usually fertile lands, which stretch north from just outside Addis Ababa and cover an area roughly the size of Ireland, farmers are staring at empty fields instead of harvesting crops like teff, wheat, barley and sorghum.
Ethiopia’s global request for help couldn’t come at a worse time, as other large-scale humanitarian crises unfold in places like Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Nepal and South Sudan. But we cannot turn our backs on Ethiopia — we must learn from what the history books tell us about the region. You need only look back to the Horn of Africa drought in 2011, which affected 13 million people and resulted in more than 250,000 dying from hunger in Somalia and the Horn of Africa countries. Back then, the early warning signs began to emerge a full year earlier, yet the international community took until the peak of the crisis to act at a sufficient level. But it was too late and much of the damage had been done already. In the years that followed that scandalous failure of the international system, a range of preventive measures were put in place to ensure history did not repeat, including the implementation of large-scale drought resilience programs and strong policy commitments from donor countries.
But here we are again. This drought is forecast to be the strongest in Ethiopia in 30 years, yet funding commitments from international donors are worryingly low. The Ethiopian Government has responded strongly, unlocking $268.8 million in funding and showing real leadership. They expect to be able to handle most of the impact of the emergency themselves. Aid agencies are helping too. Now the international community must heed the warning and act urgently.
Ireland must play its part too like it did in 2011 when it gave much needed funding for the Horn of Africa drought response and was commended for its leadership in galvanising other donors to act. This is no ordinary year in Ethiopia. This is a “code red” and it needs to be treated like one. Hunger, drought, starvation and utter despair – will it ever end? Has nothing been achieved for all the money, time and effort that has gone into trying to end this kind of African human tragedy?
The question is totally legitimate – as is the frustration and bewilderment that millions of people in Africa appear to be as vulnerable to this kind of catastrophe today as they were more than a quarter century ago.
But I know from my own experience that things have changed in Africa a great deal over the past 30 years, and that even in the tragedy and suffering that we saw recently in Somalia, Southern Sudan, The Congo, Ethiopia and West Africa there are signs of hope for the future.
I have something of a ‘vested interest’ in what happens in Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa. It’s a connection that started way back in 1984, when the images from Michael Buerk’s BBC report on the famine prompted me to change my own life, and begin a career that has seen me spend my life since then working to support the poor of the developing world. I worked in Ethiopia with a relief agency for a number of years, and a very important little part of this incredible country came closer to home in recent times, when we adopted two beautiful Ethiopian angels, Mia and Sophie, to create the family that we have today.
I have travelled to Ethiopia many times, and was back there only last week when I was traveling with a great group of Irish volunteers to take part in the 10km Great Ethiopian Run, and raise vital funds for the charity I work with – Gorta Self Help Africa.