Conflict, Climate and Catastrophe Converge in Ethiopia
The conflict in northern Ethiopia has had profound repercussions that extend far beyond the immediate battleground. While the war continues to cast a shadow over the nation, another pressing issue looms large: a prolonged and pervasive drought that grips vast stretches of the country.
Felegehiwot, a village located 35 kilometers from Yechila town in Abergelle Woreda, north of Mekelle, finds itself caught in the grip of an unrelenting drought. The impact of this prolonged dry spell has been particularly severe for the residents, leaving them in a state of desperation and uncertainty.
Woleteyohannes Woldeyohannes, a witness to past droughts and famines, including the devastating 1984 famine in Ethiopia, is among those facing an unparalleled crisis.
Despite losing her eyesight, she keenly recognizes the severity of the ongoing drought that has plagued her village for the past two years.
With none of her six family members by her side, she was once compelled to leave her village due to drought and sought refuge in Wolkaite, where she resided for ten years on the other side of the Tekeze River.
However, the war in Tigray forced her to return to her birthplace.
“We sought refuge across the Tekeze River, retreating to the gorges and temporarily relocating to sustain ourselves and our livestock. Relocation offered a lifeline, a means to escape the clutches of starvation. We even ventured as far as Wolkaite and Humera. However, with the presence of conflict and war, movement has become impossible,” she told The Reporter.
Woleteyohannes stands as a stark example of the dire situation faced by residents of Felegehiwot Kebelle. The unyielding drought has disproportionately impacted the elderly, women, children, and individuals with disabilities like herself, leaving them in a state of severe deprivation.
“Each day, my neighbors offer me a small piece of Enjera to sustain me. Aside from their kindness and support, there is no immediate family to lend assistance. This current drought, which has tormented us for two years, surpasses all previous hardships. We are left with no alternative but to endure, unable to seek refuge or escape elsewhere,” she added.
Residents of Teklewoine Kebelle also echo the same sentiments.
Tekle Tewolde, a resident, says that although the 1984 drought was severe, there was peace at that time, making it possible to escape the hardship by moving to Wolkaite, Humera, and Gondar. “However, now, due to the tragic war and its aftermath, crossing the river has become impossible, wreaking havoc on the neighboring regions of Tigray, Amhara, and Afar,” he said.
“Besides the war, the ongoing drought has had a catastrophic effect on our village,” said Guhil Tekele, a resident with a household of ten. “We used to cultivate sorghum, sesame, teff, and kidney beans. However, our land is currently barren, not even suitable for animals to graze.”
Gebremedhin Belay, who says he has witnessed droughts throughout his life in the village, remarked that although drought is a usual occurrence in the area, the current situation is much different “having claimed the lives of many people and their animals.”
“Recently, generous wealthy individuals have sent us food. The Red Cross and international charities are providing water supply through trucks. It is a relief that cuts down our six-hour journey to fetch water,” he said. “We are appealing to the government and aid organizations to provide long-term solutions by constructing irrigation and water projects in our village.”
The famine has claimed approximately 91 lives in the Woreda, according to Hailekiros Birhanu, the head of the Disaster Early Warning department at the Abergelle Woreda Agriculture and Rural Development Bureau.
Abergelle Woreda, consisting of 13 Kebelles, is located 120 kilometers northwest of Mekelle, the capital city of Tigray.
Hailekiros says that their latest report on Meher crop failure and drought assessment, shared with the federal government and international NGOs, indicates that severe drought has affected numerous Kebelles, including Teklewoine, Siye, Tsekeme, Simret, Grour, and Felegehiwot.
During the 2015/16 Meher season, around 19,509 hectares of land were cultivated, with an expected crop production of over 403,706 quintals. However, due to insufficient rainfall in some areas, the spread of pests and diseases in others, unexpected hailstorms and rain, as well as a shortage of agricultural inputs and fertilizer utilization, the crop yield was limited to 51,261 quintals. This has led to the worst drought the Woreda has ever experienced.
The scars of the war are evident in Abergelle, which was one of the major battlegrounds during the war in Tigray.
Along the dusty road from Agube to Yechila town, remnants of burned trucks and tanks stand as haunting reminders of the harsh realities faced by the region. Moreover, the drought that followed the conflict has further exacerbated the situation, rendering vast tracts of farmland dry and dusty—a visible testament to the immense challenges faced by the local community.
The toll of the ongoing drought in the Tigray region has reached a grim milestone, with over 860 lives lost, according to Redai Halefom, the head of the Tigray Region interim government communication bureau.
The situation in the region has raised concerns among authorities, who warn that the humanitarian crisis may escalate to a level comparable to the devastating 1984 famine.
However, the comparison has sparked a contentious debate.
The federal government has dismissed the assertions made by the Tigray Interim Administration, with Minister Legese Tulu (PhD) of the Government Communication Service accusing the Tigray administration of failing to respond effectively to the acute drought emergency.
Gebrehiwot Gebreegziakbher (PhD), the commissioner of the Tigray Disaster Risk Management Commission, shed light on the extent of the drought’s impact.
In an interview with The Reporter in Mekelle, he revealed that the drought has severely affected nearly 114 households in 36 Woredas and 213 Kebelles.
A coordinated assessment conducted by the regional administration, federal government disaster risk management entities, and international aid agencies since September has shown that approximately 141,000 hectares of farmland have been devastated by the ongoing drought, according to the Commissioner. Gebrehiwot emphasized that the situation has been deteriorating since September.
However, it is crucial to recognize that the humanitarian crisis in Ethiopia extends beyond the borders of the Tigray region.
Recent reports indicate that the drought has affected approximately four million people across the country. Notably, four zones in Tigray, eight zones in the Amhara region, three zones in Afar, and several other areas in different regions have been severely impacted by the relentless drought.
The widespread reach of this crisis underscores the urgent need for comprehensive and coordinated efforts to mitigate its devastating effects.
Ravaged by simultaneous conflicts in the Amhara and Oromia regions, as well as relentless drought events, Ethiopia has been dealt another blow as floods wreak havoc, affecting an estimated 1.5 million people across the nation. This confluence of crises has led to a staggering figure of 30 million individuals now in desperate need of urgent humanitarian assistance, according to the latest estimates.
The Reporter had the opportunity to witness the dire situation unfolding in Abergelle Woreda, where the impact of the drought has been nothing short of catastrophic.
Among the affected residents is Aleqa Embaye Sertsie, a man residing in the drought-stricken Kebelle of Felegehiwot. With a gaunt appearance, shallow, yellowish eyes, Aleqa shared his harrowing tale of survival, recounting how he sought sustenance by pleading with people who traveled to remote villages in search of food.
His once-fertile farmland now lay barren, forcing him to venture to Samre in search of day labor and, at times, resorting to begging for food. Rumors of incoming food aid compelled him to return to his village, only to discover the grim reality of daily hunger and the tragic loss of lives.
“People are dying daily due to hunger, but due to societal shame, the extent of the crisis remains largely unspoken,” he said, adding that they have also suffered the loss of their livelihoods, as their once-thriving livestock—goats, sheep, and cattle—have perished en masse.
“Despite being surrounded by the Tekeze and other river basins, access to water and fish has been restricted due to the construction of the Tekeze Hydro Power dam,” he said.
Aleqa nostalgically reminisced about the time when the Tekeze River was a vital resource for their village, a time before the dam altered their lives forever.
His sentiments are echoed by numerous Felegehiwot residents who feel that the massive hydroelectric dam project has brought them no tangible benefits. They are disheartened by the fact that, despite the dam’s production of 300 MW of power, their village remains in darkness, deprived of the transformative potential of electricity.
While a glimmer of hope arrived in the form of the first round of food aid distributed three weeks ago, consisting of a quintal of maize and wheat for four individuals, the severity of the humanitarian crisis demands additional support for their survival.
In addition to continued water supply by truck, essential food items such as flour, rice, and other nutritional provisions have been distributed. However, the uncertainty looms large for vulnerable groups, including breastfeeding mothers, pregnant women, children, the elderly, and individuals with disabilities. Unless the next round of food aid arrives within the next few days, their well-being hangs in the balance.
The urgency of the situation cannot be overstated, and immediate action is imperative to prevent further suffering and loss of lives. As Ethiopia grapples with the multifaceted challenges of conflicts, drought, and floods, concerted efforts are required to address the overwhelming humanitarian crisis that has engulfed the nation.
Ethiopia is facing a grave and protracted crisis as it endures an unprecedented sequence of five consecutive failed rainy seasons, marking the most severe drought the country has seen in four decades. The devastating effects of this environmental catastrophe are not confined to traditionally arid regions like Afar; even areas once blessed with bountiful rainfall, such as west Oromia, southern Ethiopia and Benishangul, find themselves teetering on the brink of a parched future.
The toll on the country’s livestock has been nothing short of catastrophic.
Since 2021, over 4.5 million animals have perished due to the unrelenting drought. Shockingly, the La Niña-induced dry spell in the southern part of Ethiopia, particularly in the Afar, Somali, and Oromia regions, puts around 30 million cattle at imminent risk of death, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA).
However, the misery does not end there.
In a cruel twist of fate, the Somali region, already reeling from the drought, was hit by devastating floods. A UN OCHA report revealed that these floods claimed the lives of 45 individuals, displaced 35,000 households, and led to the loss of 23,000 livestock in the Somali region alone. Moreover, “unusual” flooding has wreaked havoc on Oromia, the South West, Afar, and the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples’ regional states.
The Tigray region was also affected by the relentless onslaught of locust invasions, later spreading to neighboring areas. In August 2023, UNOCHA raised the alarm, warning that over 253,300 people, along with 33,000 hectares of crucial agricultural land in the Southern Zone of Tigray, were at imminent risk of succumbing to the ravages of locust infestation, jeopardizing vital crop production.
Tragically, the dire state of affairs was and is further compounded by ongoing conflicts between the federal government and various groups, including the TPLF, OLA, and Fano.
Adding fuel to the fire, allegations of widespread aid diversion involving multiple parties to the conflict prompted USAID Ethiopia office to suspend aid across the country on June 8th, with the World Food Programme (WFP) following suit the next day.
This suspension of vital assistance exacerbated the suffering of vulnerable populations already struggling to survive.
These protracted hostilities have turned once-thriving agricultural areas into perilous battlegrounds, leaving farms ransacked and destroyed, and plunging communities into a state of profound uncertainty.