Keeping the faith



Hopes are high that rainfall in 2016 will save millions

In Ethiopia 10.1 million people will need food assistance in 2016, 400,000 children are malnourished and 1.8 million children are out of school due the crippling drought. The Government has stated that it is in need of USD 1.2 billion of emergency funds, and so far only a fraction of that amount has been met. There is uncertainty throughout; the international community may not provide the needed funding, or may not do so in time. All hope is in what seems unlikely – that the rains this year will come just in time to avoid catastrophe. The country is in the brink of yet another tragedy, however, there is little action to match the urgency of the current drought. It will be ‘a long year ahead’ for Ethiopia, says John Graham, Country Director for Save the Children Ethiopia, and yet he is adamant that ‘we have to hope that the rains will be good’. Capital’s Eskedar Kifle spoke to John Graham about the drought, its potential for destruction and of what needs to be done to evade crisis.

Capital: The drought has received international media coverage and all are saying the situation is quite bad, is it really as bad as it is portrayed?
John Graham:
I think the situation is very bad in terms of lack of rainfall. I think people would be shocked if they went around and talked to pastoralists and farmers in affected areas who have lost so much. So many of their animals are dead, most have lost all of their crops so I think people would be very shocked if they talked to these people. On the positive side, Ethiopia has had a period of economic growth so is not as vulnerable to this kind of drought, people’s capacity to survive the droughts is improved, we don’t see people heading off to feeding camps and things like that.
Also, because systems are now in place to try and get food to them in their houses, before they start to suffer, the drought is less visible compared to previous droughts, which had huge impacts on human suffering. But, I would invite anyone to go to the affected areas and to talk to the people to find out just how bad the situation is. Capital: What does the international community need to do and how soon should it be done?
The international community has been responding and there have been very strong advocates from different donors who have contributed. The question is – because of the scale of this drought – how much more they should contribute. Frankly, what we have seen thus far is only meets a fraction of the needs and there is really need to do a lot more than that has been done so far.
I think the missions here, based in Addis Ababa, understand that but the headquarters do not. The headquarters are distracted by so many other international crises and they are saying that they don’t have money and they cannot do anything. And yet, this is our great opportunity to prevent the kind of suffering that occurred in previous droughts and also to help the Ethiopian Government, who shouldn’t have to divert all of their development funds into responding to this drought. So we want to put pressure on the international community to do a lot more.
Capital: Do you think the international communality will do a lot more?
I am hopeful, but I am also worried. I think there is tendency to wait for terrible images of famine to appear on TV screens and that is the exact thing we are trying to prevent here. We shouldn’t have to have malnourished children on TV before people respond. The whole point is that if we do respond now, we can prevent that from happening. And there is no way in the year 2016 we should allow this to happen, again.
Capital: As an NGO, when was the first time you noticed early warnings of impending crisis?
We were picking up some signs in June 2014, because we had earlier rainfall failures in places like Afar and so on. The situation then deteriorated very quickly with very bad ‘belg’ rain in 2015. By June and July, we knew that the ‘belg’ rains had failed and metrological agencies said it had failed completely.  We also noted the failure of pastoralists’ rains in places like Afar and the Northern parts of Somali Region in July, and in some places that was the third consecutive failure of rains so we knew the situation was getting really bad.
On top of that, we also saw very poor ‘kiremt’ rain as well, that hasn’t happened for a long time, the ‘kiremt’ rain was usually very reliable. So these consecutive failures of rain in different part of the country piling on top of each other make the drought such a severe crisis.
Capital: Looking at the early warning signs, have you been communicating with the Government throughout the period, if so what has the response been?
We have been communicating with the government the whole time; we work with the government at all levels. We have been part of the multi agency assessments with the government to determine how bad the situation is and we have helped them with methodologies on early warnings and so on, so we have been in constant communication.
As I have said, I am very impressed by the actions the Government has taken, first of all in measuring what the impact of this was, acknowledging it and getting it out to the public very quickly. And in terms of the response, allocating millions of dollars to the response. They have allocated more than the international community, usually it is the other way around. So the government is to be congratulated, we are very pleased to be working with them.
Capital: This drought will have long lasting effects even after food aid reaches affected populations. How long lasting do you think the effects will be?
What we know right now is that the situation is going to get worse for many people at least through the next September, that is what we are concentrating on. If the rains fail again in 2016, the crisis will get much worse but we have to hope that the rains will be good this year and that this crisis will wind down, hopefully by the end of 2016. Still, we have a long year ahead of us.