Salihu Sultan is
surely as dedicated to his community as anyone could ask
of a Red Cross branch leader. Rather than join his wife and
four children in Addis Ababa, 600 km to the north, he stays
in his small town-house on a busy street in Negele — the melting-pot market town in Ethiopia’s
drought-stricken far south.
Sultan, 40, his volunteers and board members keep an eye
(from a lack of resources, not much more than that) on the
swelling population of vulnerable groups in and around the
Like the large community of Marehan tribal people who lost
their cattle to raiders and stay in improvised settlements
on the edge of town. Or the Ethiopian refugees who fled to
Somalia from the 1974–87 Derg regime and later came
back to resettle in their own country. Or the soldiers-turnedfarmers
who live in an old barracks just outside town and who lost
their crop in the drought that ruined the first harvest of
But more than anything else, Sultan worries about the nomadic
pastoralist communities scattered across thousands of square
kilometres of parched outback on either side of the tracks
leading south to the Kenyan border. Many of them are in the
red area of the Famine Early Warning Systems (FEWS) Network
map — where households face a significant shortfall
in basic food requirements, leading to distress sales of
productive assets like cattle and, says FEWS, “high
levels of acute malnutrition”.
“The drought is very serious in this area,” says
Sultan, as he stands on an embankment just above the dried-up
Chulul River — one of the most important locally for
supplying isolated pastoral communities with water. “If
the Dawa River dries up too, we could see a major disaster
A detailed picture of the environmental and humanitarian
crisis in this part of Oromiya region emerged last year after
a survey conducted in July by local officials was made available
to the International Federation assessment team that visited
the Horn of Africa in preparation for a new appeal.
The report is cautious; there is no hint of local special
pleading. If anything, the Oromiya experts went out of their
way to emphasize the resilience for which pastoralists in
the Horn of Africa are famous. In a section on ‘coping
mechanisms’, the assessors — local officials,
agronomists, water engineers and nurses — detailed
how struggling pastoralists share whatever they have to make
sure no one goes totally without, hunt wild animals, gather
fruits and roots, and engage in small-scale business activities
like making and selling charcoal — a major cause of
deforestation. But their interviewees “uniformly reported” the
past three rainy seasons were “so bad that the livestock
production environment has shown dramatic deterioration”.
Pasture was in short supply because of “overgrazing
due to prolonged drought”; there were acute shortages
of water for human consumption; crops were poor from “lack
of rain at critical periods”; and even the options
for migration to neighbouring areas — a traditional
nomadic solution — were limited because conditions
were no better elsewhere.
Brink of famine
But most serious, for communities almost completely dependent
on their animals, was the effect on cattle. “Due to
prolonged drought cattle have not calved,” the report
said, and “milk availability has become extremely low.” The
price of a cup of milk had tripled to three Ethiopian birr
(about 30 US cents). Cattle were dying in “unusual
An International Federation field trip to the village of
Melka Guba, about half way between Negele and the Kenyan
frontier, confirmed this. “We’ve lost more than
1,000 cattle this year alone,” said headman Dhane Gelgelo, “and
more are dying all the time.” At its peak, the community’s
herd numbered 6,000 animals; now they’re down to about
Surviving cattle were in very poor condition, attempting
to graze on the useless weeds that make the ground look deceptively
green in places. “There are now 620 households registered
as losing their cattle,” added Gelgelo, 34, explaining
that villagers used to be willing to make long trips into
the bush to find pasture and browse but have given up because
it’s pointless, so severe is the drought.
“After all this,” he says, “we’re
assuming that people will start to die.” And he adds
that out in the bush, away from the road, they have heard
that some fellow pastoralists are already dying.
Malnutrition was not dramatically obvious in Melka Guba;
there is no feeding centre; no scenes of dehydrated, dying
infants that have historically triggered massive food-relief
operations in Africa. But the condition of the animals looked
like a warning from the gods: the scrub around the village
is strewn with their bones, picked clean by hyenas at night.
Like most villagers in Melka Guba, Konso Aga, 45, eats only
twice a day. “Roasted maize seed in the morning for
breakfast or sometimes kollo [barley],” she
told the International Federation. “Boiled maize for
dinner. I also eat mud bura or ogomde,” wild
berries that grow nearby and help pastoralists cope in lean
times. But no meat, no proper fruit or vegetables, no dairy
When the villagers point out that there are no longer any
kind of special foodstuffs for children (they switch straight
from the breast to grain, softened with water or roasted
but still indigestible for the very young), it’s not
difficult to see why they are always first to fall victim
to food-security crises like this. And their ‘meals’ are
washed down with water so obviously dirty and unsafe it looks
more like tea.
“People are heading toward mass starvation unless
the world does something,” says Bekele Geleta, the
International Federation’s secretary general and himself
“There are much more frequent droughts now,” he
adds, “and they affect new areas, and more and more
people.” In Negele, Ethiopian Red Cross Society branch
members and local officials agree the impact of drought has
intensified since the July assessment recommended urgent
food assistance for more than 140,000 people in just the
two woredas (districts) it looked at: Liben and
The report spoke of a majority of people “sliding
from normal nutritional status to malnutrition” as
a result of “environmental and market shock”.
Out of a total of nearly 30,000 children under 5, 85 per
cent needed emergency feeding; half of nearly 6,500 lactating
mothers and pregnant women needed “emergency supplementary
feeding”. Some new mothers, it said, had been found
in an “emaciated” condition.
Soaring food prices
There is nothing new about drought in the Horn, where it’s
gravely exacerbated by conflicts that in some cases have
stretched over decades, especially in Somalia. “We’re
seeing a major deterioration of the humanitarian situation
in Somalia,” says Pascal Mauchle, head of the Nairobi-based
ICRC delegation for the country. “Hundreds of thousands
of people have fled fighting and drought.” Last year
the ICRC nearly tripled the level of its food aid to Somalia
compared to 2007 (see box).
Working through the Somali Red Crescent Society, still the
only organization with anything like widespread humanitarian
access, the International Federation’s appeal aims
to extend existing health, nutrition and water and sanitation
networks in Somaliland and Puntland, in line with international
mandates, as the best way to scale up the humanitarian effort.
But the International Federation’s multidisciplinary
assessment, published in December, emphasizes that as well
as continuing conflict, what pushed the region to the edge
in 2008 was that, for the first time, drought is matched
by “an important series of external factors” — especially
soaring international food prices. This is critical in a
region dependent, even in good years, on imports.
“Never before have international markets had such
a dramatic impact on the food security of the most vulnerable
in the Horn of Africa,” said Roger Bracke, the leader
of the assessment term. From the point of view of humanitarian
donors — possibly weary of pouring money into a region
often portrayed as a hopeless basket-case — this,
he stresses, is not just “more of the same”.
Most urgent humanitarian crisis
The Ethiopian researchers found that food-price inflation
in their part of Oromiya was even worse than thought. Over
a two-year period to mid-2008, wheat and maize rose 250 per
cent and 344 per cent respectively. The price of Ethiopia’s
staple cereal teff, a key humanitarian indicator,
rose 245 per cent. But what’s very telling is that
over the same period, as the condition of cattle deteriorated
and more families sold their animals, the price of a steer
rose only 9 per cent. This means that selling their assets
as a survival strategy has spelt disaster for pastoralist
In Ethiopia nationally, the number of people agreed by the
government and the humanitarian community to need emergency
food aid rose relentlessly last year, from more than 2 million
when the International Federation issued its first appeal
for US$ 1.8 million in May, to 4.6 million in June, to nearly
6.5 million in October — mostly in the southern regions
of the country. This figure did not include a further 5.7
million in the government’s ‘productive safety
In January 2009, it was reduced again to just over 4.9 million
for 2009, with an additional 1.2 million mothers and children
under 5 needing supplementary feeding.
However, Ethiopian officials — presenting the ‘inter-agency
assessment’ for 2009 to donors and diplomats — stressed
the humanitarian number could go up again if the March rainy
season is poor or fails altogether.
In Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya and (proportionately by far
the worst-affected country) Somalia, the countries included
in the International Federation appeal, the United Nations
said some 17 million people were in jeopardy in 2008 — preserving
the Horn of Africa’s reputation as quantitatively the
most urgent humanitarian crisis in the world.
Another part of Ethiopia causing concern was the northern
Afar region, where last July the BBC’s Karen Allen
filmed people eating animal feed. Humanitarian needs in Afar,
for the moment, may be largely met by the government’s
safety net. But the region shares a micro-climate and a border
with Djibouti, where pastoralists have been driven out of
their traditional grazing areas by drought in ever-greater
numbers towards the capital.
“Many of Djibouti’s pastoralists have effectively
become environmental refugees in their own country,” said
Tarun Sarwal, a British Red Cross recovery delegate on the
assessment team. “We’re all experienced people
and we’ve seen the worst of the worst poverty in many
parts of the world,” he added, “but even we struggled
to see how these people survive.”
Robert Fraser, a water and sanitation specialist who lived
there 20 years ago, says Djibouti city is now “completely
surrounded by informal settlements, inhabited by people who
have fled the countryside in desperation. The people we met
in the rural hinterland are literally clinging on to what
has to be seen as a dying way of life because of the loss
of water sources and pasture.”
In Sankhal, for example, a rolling moonscape of scorched,
rocky hills some 110 km west of Djibouti city on theEthiopian
border, about 2,000 pastoralist families displaced by drought
from even more remote areas are trying to make a new home.
The once-nomadic pastoralists are hungry, thirsty and often
“We’ve not seen rain all year,” says the
headman, Mahamoud Robleh, 60, as he points his walking stick
at the burning sky. A depleted well is one of the villagers’ few
sources of water — and again quite obviously unsafe
water. The consequences for the very young can be quickly
“We lost two children yesterday from diarrhoea,” says
Robleh. “Many people are sick in their huts.” He
adds that most women and children are malnourished.
Asked about the position of pastoralist women, Muna Abdullahi,
28, secretary general of the local branch of the Djibouti
Red Crescent Society, says they face numerous challenges. “From
dawn to dusk, they struggle to look for food and water to
sustain their families. Insteadof the wild fruit they used
to pick, the few living trees now provide only firewood.
Many people require shelter, blankets, mosquito nets and
The Red Crescent believes pastoralists could, with some
help, find alternative livelihoods, according to Abdullahi,
such as weaving for women and ‘agro-pastoralism’ for
men — smallscale horticulture combined with some livestock,
possibly goats, which can bear the arid conditions better.
“We would very much like to do more to help people
with water and sanitation,” says Djibouti Red Crescent
secretary general, Abdi Khaireh Bouh. “Water is a top
Moussa Djama Warsama, his deputy, puts it bluntly: “All
our wadis are dry. People rely on wells that are
often shallow, and so contaminated. Digging deeper ones is
Hunger is not an option
So how can the Red Cross Red Crescent Movement jointly help
to banish the spectre of famine in the Horn of Africa?
With its appeal for nearly US$ 100 million, the International
Federation hopes — international donors permitting — to
assist 2.2 million beneficiaries in Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya
and Somalia over five years. In late February, a food pipeline
was being put into place in the Ethiopian region of Oromiya,
with a hub in Negele, to distribute food procured in Ethiopia
to 20 distribution points up to 100 kilometres away.
“Hunger is not an option,” says Roger Bracke
emphatically. “The people of this region can no longer
be allowed to suffer in silence. We can’t just stand
by and accept the unacceptable.”
According to the ICRC’s Pascal Mauchle: “The
chronic nature of the crisis has completely exhausted people’s
ability to cope.”
Yet to some extent the International Federation’s
appeal is pre-emptive — and therefore a challenge to
fund. By the time television pictures of starving people
appear on the evening news, it’s too late: a food-relief
operation (even one procuring food locally, as this will)
takes many weeks to organize. Airlifting food, with the possible
exception of some specialist baby-formula, is rarely sensible,
say logisticians now working on the Horn operation.
It would also be a mistake, according to Bekele Geleta,
an avowed believer in ‘early warning, early action’,
to paint a wholly negative picture of Ethiopia especially,
where the biggest numbers are, to try to unlock donor funds. “I
went home for the first time in 17 years recently,” he
told Red Cross Red Crescent, “and a tremendous
amount has been achieved with the development of infrastructure,
schools, clinics, communications, electrification.”
And for this, Geleta says, “the Ethiopian government
has not been given the recognition it deserves. But the country
is suffering severe climate change impacts and like all countries,
their capacities are finite. It’s certainly moving
forward, but economic restructuring and wealth creation can
cause dislocation and unemployment — until that wealth
can be successfully reinvested.
“Now the Ethiopian diaspora must mobilize itself to
help avert this disaster. We need even less politics and
even more development.”
Red Cross volunteers distribute food aid to people in Ethiopia.
©Jose Cendon / International Federation
Salihu Sultan, 40, Ethiopian Red Cross Society branch
leader in Negele, worries about hunger in communities
of nomadic pastoralists scattered across thousands of
square kilometres of parched outback near the Kenyan
border. “The drought is very serious in this area.
If the Dawa River dries up too, we could see a major
At a feeding centre in Boditi village in Ethiopia’s Wolayita
region, a malnourished boy clutches his mother’s hand.
©Jose Cendon / International Federation
Working on remote control
Interview with Mathias Frese, in
charge of ICRC’s economic security programmes
How would you describe the humanitarian
situation in Somalia today?
Many are living in appalling conditions. The only coping
mechanisms that I can think of are wood collection
and then it is begging.
If you consider the displacement that has taken place
and the natural disasters, there are hundreds of thousands
of house-holds who need support now. Often the displaced
seek refuge with their relatives or their clan. In
the Somali traditional system, the host family has
to support the displaced family but you can imagine
what a burden this poses on the host family.
For the nomadic community in Somalia, the number of
animals in a herd has decreased dramatically due to
lack of pasture, grazing land and water.
Can you respond in a timely and efficient
way despite the volatile security in the field?
Many humanitarian workers have been abducted or killed
in cowardly acts. So we are working from Kenya. Ideally,
an ICRC expatriate delegate goes to the field with
Somali colleagues and people from the Somali Red Crescent
Society. But most of the time we have to rely on information
that we collect in reports, through telephone calls
During the last five months of 2008, we delivered
food aid to nearly half a million people. In most of
the regions where ICRC is working, we enjoy excellent
cooperation with the National Society on every level
and particularly for our large relief interventions.
Their experts and volunteers assist us in the assessment,
they play a key role in the distribution, they reach
out to the communities. They are a very strong pillar
of ICRC work in Somalia.
Are you sure aid is not diverted or sold
in the local market?
We maintain a permanent dialogue with community leaders
or elders. If there was any misappropriation of aid,
we would be informed quickly by different channels.
We are transparent: the population knows what we are
doing, what we are delivering, to whom we are delivering.
In addition to that, the people know that when the
ICRC assesses a situation of displacement or vulnerable
groups, we are not turning our backs on them, but we
return with vital assistance.
Interview by Pedram Yazdi, ICRC communication delegate
A girl carries her brother as she waits for food distribution
in Buge village in Ethiopia’s Wolayita region.
©Jose Cendon / International Federation
Mahamoud Robleh, 60, the headman of Sankhal village
in Djibouti, says most women and children are malnourished. “We
lost two children yesterday from diarrhoea. Many people
are sick in their huts.”
Food and seeds from the Ethiopian Red Cross Society keep hunger
at bay for Anteshe Ganta and her three children.
©Jose Cendon / International Federation