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On the margins
of survival

The spectre of famine hovers over East Africa.
What can the Red Cross Red Crescent do to help?

A farmer gathers shrivelled corn on his farm in Kwale, a town in Kenya’s Coast Province. ©REUTERS / JOSEPH OKANGA , COURTESY

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 town.

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 2008.

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 here.”

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 numbers”.

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 2,000.

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 products.

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 Ethiopian-born.

“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 Goro-Dola.

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 communities.

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 net programme’.

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 sick.

“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 lethal.

“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.

Dry wadis

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 food.”

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 priority.”

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 very expensive.”

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







Volunteer profile


Salihu Sultan

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 disaster here.”







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 for Somalia

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 or discussions.

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 for Somalia.







A girl carries her brother as she waits for food distribution in Buge village in Ethiopia’s Wolayita region.
©Jose Cendon / International Federation







Volunteer profile


Mahamoud Robleh

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


Alex Wynter
Alex Wynter is a freelance journalist and editor based in London.



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