Sunday, April 26, 2015

Drought in the Horn

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It’s a strange feeling to return home and find southern Ethiopia in the headlines. It had felt a very cut-off place, but it is now an epicentre of media, government and aid agency attention. The UNHCR/ USAID disaster map - pictured above - puts a large swathe of southern Ethiopia in the ‘emergency’ category of food availability.

Just to the left of the black box that says ‘3.2 million’ in Ethiopia is a small section of white, i.e. where there is no apparent problem with food supply. This is the Arba Minch woreda (district). Arba Minch translates as ‘forty springs’, and the town lies by the southernmost of the Great Rift Valley lakes. Rain has been falling in the hills and the livestock continue to drink from the lakes. Here, water is available. The banana tree and sugar cane fields are green. The maize is almost ready to harvest. North of this area is an isolated patch of ‘emergency’ food supply levels I travelled through on a bus from Sodo to Shashamene. The cattle looked gaunt; I saw a few dead donkeys and cattle with their swollen stomachs, lying by the roadside.

The Omo valley

Further south and you descend into the Omo valley, reaching the ‘emergency’ level of food supply. There were many concerned voices amongst residents, even two months ago. The most interesting report came from two Catholic missionaries, who have been living in the Omo valley with the Mursi for the past seven years running a livestock health programme. The high cost of grain in the market and the lack of good pasture early in the dry season spelled trouble. Mothers had been knocking on the door of the mission, asking for something to feed their starving children. But, at the time I met them, the government had not designated their woreda as an emergency zone, so the giving of food aid was illegal. To get round this problem, the mission had been running work-for-food programmes.

Both qualified vets, the missionaries had run a livestock health programme seeing rapid, substantial and sustained health improvements. “A success?” I asked. “Not at all,” they told me. “Our programme has caused major problems.” Healthier livestock leads to more livestock, leads to more grazing, degradation of grasslands, and finally to conflict between neighbouring tribes as they compete for what little grass is left. “When I first arrived in the Omo,” the husband described, “we used to walk through elephant grass taller than me. There were countless different grass species. Now I can’t find pastures like this. They have been irreversibly destroyed by over-grazing, and that is in part due to the ‘success’ of our programme. If you ask me, you can’t get 100% successful development; if you think it is successful then you must look one step further and find the mess it has caused elsewhere.”

The ‘emergency’ areas of the UNHCR/ USAID map are predominantly inhabited by pastoralists or agro-pastoralists. A pastoralist livelihood suits areas with low or infrequent rainfall. This is partly because of the difficulty of growing crops in arid areas, but also to facilitate a nomadic lifestyle, moving in response to rain. One of the drivers of the current famine is the unsettled regional political situation. Fighting between tribes, between local tribal or Islamic militant groups and government forces has made certain areas ‘no go zones’, meaning that people cannot reach some pastures. But it is also important to understand the inverse effect: limited water and pastures causing conflicts. This video, made in response to the 2010 drought, gives an introduction.

Addressing famine

Long-term strategies to reduce threat of famine in the area will have to address the political situation. One of the main concerns remains over-grazing: the value of livestock is well above its worth in food. Livestock are a sign of wealth, a form of savings, provide draught power and are used for dowries. “What people need,” the missionary said, “are alternative ways of making food and earning a living than through livestock.” Not wishing to downplay the region’s political problems, there is it seems an element of Malthusian crisis: the land, limited mainly by erratic and low levels of rainfall, cannot support an increasing number of people and livestock. The problem is getting worse with climate change.

Increasing crop and fodder production is necessary. This could be done through irrigated agriculture fed by damming of rivers. The government is pursuing this as part of the Gibe III Hydroelectric Dam on the Omo River, currently under construction. But there are many potential hazards, including soil salinization, dam siltation and reduced downstream flow. Local people are complaining that downstream fish catch has already been negatively affected and that pasture land is being taken away for agriculture use. In addition, the government has so far used irrigated land for cash crops (cotton and sugar cane), managed by large companies including overseas investors, a strategy not directed towards local food production. An alternative is to use techniques for increasing rainwater harvesting and for improving rainfall use efficiency. This would include a range of techniques such as swales, bunds, planting pits, terracing, mulching and companion planting. Could such techniques significantly boost crop production in an arid region such as the Omo valley. Permaculturalist Geoff Lawton had success in his Greening the Desert project in Jordan mainly through use of heavy mulching, a thick ground cover of crop residue or other organic material which traps moisture in the soil and deflects heat.

Surely local populations would already be aware of optimal techniques and be practicing them? This second question is more difficult to answer. However, the fact that Mursi involved in the livestock health programme are asking for agriculture training strongly suggests that there is room for improvement.

Making the most of local resources

As I found at Strawberry Fields Permaculture design training courses, and at the various school projects started and supported by Strawberry, there is great potential when mixing outsider knowledge and resources with indigenous knowledge and resources.

One teacher, 22-year-old Asmelash, has run the project since, and devoted tremendous energy and enthusiasm. The school garden now grows maize, teff, banana, sugar cane, mango, papaya, sweet potato, mulberry, cassava, pigeon pea, cow pea, kidney bean, tomato, potato, chilli, pumpkin, carrot, lettuce, cabbage, aleko (Moringa oleifera), swiss chard and more. Produce is enough to feed the teachers and excess is sold to the local community, earning an equivalent amount to all school fees put together. Asmelash has achieved this with minimal outside assistance and resources, although a new 50,000 litre rainwater tank built by Save The Children will now boost production. He has trained numerous students who work alongside him, and many were keen to tell me how they have taken ideas back to their homes to share with their families. The community has also donated a new patch of land so that the school garden can expand.

While I was there we built a urinal and hand wash facilities using scrap pieces of tin roof nailed to some eucalyptus poles cut from the site and an unused gutter for the drain. The urine drains through a sand pit and into surrounding soil. We planted banana around the pit as, being a grass, it can tolerate higher concentrations of urine. The project was a neat example of applying permaculture principles: turning a problem, the disposal of urine, into a solution, fertilising plants. Turning waste into a resource; making the most of local resources; providing a low-cost design that is easily replicable, to me, the project makes ecological and economic sense. We spent time on ensuring local pupil and teacher acceptance and hygienic use.

Aid gone wrong

Looking at mainstream, international aid, you will often find a different picture. Just before returning home, I found myself in a honey shop in Goba, Bale Mountains. The region is notable for its endemic birds and mammals that live in and around the Bale Mountains National Park, a unique afro-alpine habitat with beautiful mature forests. The honey is collected from the forests by locals and stored in old sacks. One sack on the shop floor, now bulging with honey, read: ‘Urea, 50kg, From The People Of Japan’.

To me, this felt like ‘aid gone wrong’. Does manufacturing urea fertiliser, an energy-costly process, in Japan and shipping it all the way to Ethiopia really provide long-term economic and ecological benefits? Would it not make more sense to design and implement sanitation systems that made use of locally-produced urine, such as these EcoSan projects?

Unfortunately, too often international aid is driven by political motives or benefits specific individuals or corporations. Ethiopia, in its response to the drought and in its longer term agricultural and food security strategies, has a challenge to develop systems designed to serve its people versus systems designed to serve others. Some aid will help, some will hinder.

As the shopkeeper scooped handfuls of honey into a plastic bag, (luckily not from the urea sack), she asked me where I was from –“China?”

“No, England.”

“Good, the Chinese eat dogs! Do you enjoy Ethiopia? England is best, no – you have money?”

I wanted to say, “But in Ethiopia even strangers are friendly, they welcome you into their homes for milk and beer and food even when they have little. The people are cheerful, warm and peaceful despite hard lives, and they are not jealous. Life is raw and undiluted – if you want goat meat for a party, you buy a goat, kill it and roast it; people eat together from the same plate and dance; and they hang on to the back of trucks when there’s no room inside.” Instead I settled on: “Ethiopia is beautiful.”

“Thank you,” she replied smiling, and added a little extra honey.


Hello Eddie, I enjoyed your article. It sounds like there is hope in science for drought prone areas. Could you expand on how permaculture works? Is the technology expensive to implement?