There are carcasses of livestock that perished from starvation all over the place. Both sides of the road are littered with cattle remains every 100 meters. Huge swaths of land that were once used to graze animals are now abandoned. Women, men, and children all appear thirsty and are pleading with passersby to stop and give them a drink of water. “Please, please, give me water,” they say to drivers who lower their mirrors to hear them.
All of these unfortunate events are taking place in the town of Das, which is located to the west of the Borena Zone in Oromia and is currently giving refuge to more than 2,000 people who were recently displaced from another area inside the same zone.
Five successive failed rainy seasons left Das and all of Borena in a drought unprecedented in four decades. As a direct result of the drought, which has left more than 24 million Ethiopians in need of immediate assistance, more than 800,000 people who live in the Zone are in an extremely precarious condition and are wholly reliant on the food supplies they get from international relief organizations. One of them is Jatemi Sora, who has lost 200 cattle due to the drought.
Jatemi was once a wealthy farmer in his locality, having 10 children. He was seen as an exemplary of success and hard work by his neighbors. He never expected a day that he would not have a penny to feed his children would come. “Slowly, almost all of my cattle have died. I have only one livestock but it is emaciated and likely to die soon,” said Jatemi, looking frustrated and helpless.
The staggering scale of livestock deaths—more than 4.5 million have died since late 2021, and a further 30 million weakened and emaciated livestock are at risk—is significantly affecting livelihoods, according to the UN OCHA.
Over 30 million people in Ethiopia are currently experiencing drought conditions, and the country is likely to experience a sixth consecutive failed rainy season. Conflicts in Oromia, Afar, and Benishangul-Gumuz have hampered the ability of humanitarian groups to reach crisis-affected communities with crucial support, increasing the number of internally displaced people and families in need of immediate help. There have already been economic strains and the fallout from the fighting in northern Ethiopia, Oromia, and elsewhere before the prolonged drought hit the southeast.
“It’s so heartbreaking to see those vibrant pastoralist communities, who could give you milk when you ask for water, suffer tremendously due to subsequent rain failure and loss of their livestock,” says Messele Seyoum, executive director of the Gayo Pastoralist Development Initiative, a non-profit organization active in Borena with a goal of reducing the vulnerability of locals for various hazards.
Parents are struggling to meet their basic needs. As families struggle to get food and water, tensions rise, and young women and girls are forced to make compromises. Girls are being pushed into early marriage, and violence against women and girls is getting worse, which makes this situation even worse.
International Rescue just last week ranked Ethiopia as the second-most at-risk country for worsening humanitarian needs in 2023. Given the hardship faced by livestock herders like Kuyo Jarso, who have lost seven cattle because of the drought, the projection seems reasonable.
“People will die of hunger if drought-affected communities don’t get immediate help,” said Kuyo, who said that some elders have already died from illnesses caused by the drought.
A lack of access to safe drinking water as a result of the drought has contributed to a cholera outbreak that has killed more than two dozen individuals in southeast Ethiopia over the past month.
“A household only gets 10 liters of water twice a week,” says Kuyo, who lives in an IDP camp for people affected by drought in Das, where households with nine people get less than three liters of water, on average, a day to drink and use for other things.
Authorities are also concerned.
“We need help as soon as possible. With the way aid is coming in now, the lives of a lot of drought victims are in danger,” said Gunuke Boru, a high-ranking official in the area where Kuyo lives now.
Relief organizations are doing their best to raise public awareness about the severity of the drought and thereby collect funding for those in need. “Five consecutive failed rainy seasons have brought the worst drought in decades leaving millions in various parts of Ethiopia between life and death. Plan International took reporters from local and international news outlets to drought-affected areas last week to show how serious it is. If we don’t scale up our assistance, it won’t be possible to prevent the looming hunger crisis from affecting children, girls and their families,” says Mudasser Siddiqui, Country Director, Plan International Ethiopia.
In the meantime, the amount of funding needed to respond to the problem is increasing. To assist drought-affected communities in the south and conflict-affected populations in the north, at least USD three billion in funding is required.
“If the international community and the government of Ethiopia do not step up by allocating additional funding for response to the drought-affected communities, the consequences could be devastating and immediate,” says Billy Abimbilla, Country Director of GOAL Ethiopia, another humanitarian organization that is striving hard to expand its response operations.