Shura Kalicha, a widow in her sixties and a mother of six, has seen a lot in her 60 years in Bokola kebele, Moyale woreda, located in Borena zone, Ethiopia, not far from the country’s southernmost border with Kenya. She once had 50 cattle, and they are the sole source of income for her family.
Sadly, Shura lost 40 cattle as a result of the catastrophic drought that has plagued the Borena Zone for the past five years in a row. She managed to sign up for livestock insurance through a local NGO-funded scheme that provides fodder for cattle, but only 10 of her cattle made it.
“Everything has gone since the rain stopped. The government could not supply us with water or emergency support. Everybody has used everything to survive the drought. We run out of everything. People are unable to move due to a lack of food and water. Children stopped going to school. We hear people are even dying of hunger and thirst in other woredas,” says Shura, unsure of the future.
As far back as five years ago, local, regional, and international early warning systems predicted that the Horn of Africa would be ravaged by a severe drought. Unfortunately, there were no preemptive measures taken to lessen the drought’s effects.
3.2 million livestock in the Borena Zone have already perished as a result of the drought. The whole population of the zone, which is roughly 1.7 million people, is in dire need of emergency humanitarian assistance, but the government does not have the resources to provide it.
In particular, experts have criticized the government for not investing in underground water projects in dry regions like Borena as soon as the early warning system signaled the upcoming drought season.
However, officials at the Borena Zone Administration disagree. The main reason for the damage in Borena, according to them, is due to deep-rooted inefficiency and corruption in the local and federal government systems.
“The human, livestock, agricultural, and environmental damage occurring in Borena could have been averted if the water project started in this zone was finalized on time,” Dida Cherkole, head of the Borena zone Water and Energy Bureau, said.
While it has been 16 years since the Borena Water Network Project’s inception, its development has only just begun. The initial concept for the project was the collection of groundwater, its storage in massive reservoirs, and its subsequent distribution for human consumption, animal consumption, and agricultural irrigation.
Five such projects were planned, each in one of the five woredas in the zone, with each initially estimated to cost one billion birr. The locations of these projects are where the current drought is severe in Borena.
Of these five projects, only one has been started and is in its first phase. It is 65 percent complete, with 66 percent of the funds disbursed. Of the 82-kilometer large pipe installation in the design, only 50 kilometers have been installed.
“First, there was a design problem, and then it was redesigned, but there were no pipes to finalize the project,” Dida, who was in ninth grade when the project was launched, said.
“The contractor, Oromia Construction Corporation, always says it could not access pipes or hard currency to finalize the water project.”
Even though a budget is set aside every year, the project has been delayed by more than a decade. Finance for the project basically comes from the federal government, though the regional government and its enterprises are implementers.
“Responsibility of the project has been swapped between the federal and regional governments. One time it is under federal government, then under regional government, and back and forth,” says Jarso Konchoro, deputy head of the agriculture bureau of Borena zone.
He says that currently there is no agricultural activity in the zone, following the severe drought that has struck for the past five consecutive years, the worst in four decades. The drought is still forecast to continue for another year.
The project could have saved people and livestock’s lives, but it is delayed mainly because of corruption, according to insiders.
Habtamu Itafa (PhD), minister of the federal Ministry of Water and Energy (MoWIE), says the issue is under scrutiny now. “We are traveling to Borena Zone to undertake a deep evaluation and find out why the project has been delayed.” The Minister traveled to Borena over the week.
In the meantime, the African Development Bank (AfDB) approved USD 14 million to finalize the project. However, many argue that the same vicious cycle will be repeated unless the contractor, consultant, and pipe supplier are changed this time around. Insiders lament the need for a government probe into allegations of corruption in the project.
“Countless water projects are started across Oromia, but they are intentionally delayed or stopped after the budget is disbursed,” a social worker with over a decade of experience in the water sector in Oromia said.
The social worker claims that corrupt officials design and approve projects, which are then awarded to selected contractors. “This cycle continues in several sectors. There is no responsibility. The federal government cannot get involved in such regional issues. Regional states, according to the social worker, have been captured by corrupt systems and, if left unchecked, will grow to state capture.
Providing water using mobile water reservoirs or trucks is recommended, while the supply of emergency food and medicines for people, animal fodder, and shelter is critical. Another short-term solution is digging water wells or using pumps to draw water from nearby rivers.
For the long term, finalizing the overdue project is not optional. Some experts also recommend that the government relocate the population of Borena to other rainy and fertile parts of the country.
This was done especially by the Derg government during the drought-induced famine in the 1980s. Thousands of households were moved from the northern part of Ethiopia to the western part of Ethiopia. Ethnic mixing has, of course, become a source of ethnic conflict in Ethiopia, where politics is now divided along ethnic lines.
The social worker claims that ever since the El Nino drought impact crept into the Horn in 2015, the government could have started and finished several water projects in the non-rainy parts of Ethiopia. “But still, its approach remains ‘business as usual’. The government’s capacity to respond never meets the level of disaster risks.”
In Ethiopia, natural and artificial disasters are equally likely to occur. People in the Horn of Africa are constantly being uprooted because of internal strife and regional political turmoil.
Being in the rift valley increases the likelihood of natural disasters such as droughts, floods, food poverty, climate change, and others.
Given the high risk levels, Ethiopia, as well as other countries in the east African region, have to be permanently prepared for disasters. However, the level of early disaster mitigation programs, impact minimization mechanisms, and fast recovery capacities, as well as national and regional cooperation, remains very poor.
While early warning systems are commonly in existence, they are often only given lip service and not put into action. The Horn of Africa has been plagued by desert locusts for the past three years, but no preventative measures were taken and no countries worked together to find a solution. In the north and west of Ethiopia, millions of people have been impacted by the violence, and they have been mainly left to their own devices or in the hands of international aid agencies.