Sunday, 10 April 2011

REFLECTIONS: Drought in Ethiopia 1977/1979

I stumbled across this article today of a difficult assignment in 1978-79 in Ethiopia. In those days, when one returned to Geneva, you were expected to write an article in the style of the day, about your mission. Here is the article I wrote  that I  have tried to liven up with a few photos, taken by my close friend Ato Tsehayou Tseyoum, with whom I travelled thousand of miles by Land Rover and fundred of miles on foot through the drought-stricken highlands of Ethiopia.

Left. Ato Yigrem from the Ethiopian Red Cross right, me to his left, talking to a doctor and a nurse in a remote clinic at 12,500 feet, a day's walk from the nearest road, on the high plateau above Dessie where many people were starving, or dying. Photo: Tsehayou Seyoum
(see comment from Tsehayou below)

Inside the Agencies : Disasters, Vol. 3, No. 2,pp. 131-133.

Pergamon Press Ltd., 1379. Printed in Great Britain.

Robert (Bob) McKerrow (New Zealand) is a Relief Officer for the League of Red Cross Societies in Geneva. (Now the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies) This article was written upon the completion of a nine month assignment from July 1978 to March 1979, as a Delegate of the League in Ethiopia where he previously worked in I974 during the earlier drought.

The League of Red Cross Societies launched an international appeal in June 1978 to support the Ethiopian
Red Cross relief operation in the drought affected areas.

By March 1979, National Societies from 26 countries had given Sfr, 2,333,000 in cash and Sfr, 3,523,000 in kind to this operation. League recently produced a 20 minute documentary film on the opemtion.

Ato Yigrem (left) and I next to him, with local guides, conducting an assessment in 1978 in the highlands south of Dessie, Wollo. We walked for weeks on this assessment and found a worsening drought, with many people starving to death. Photo: Ato Tsehayou Seyoum


Much has been written about the tragic drought and famine which affected the Ethiopian provinces of Wollo and Tigray in 1973/1974 resulting in the death of an estimated 100,000 to 200,000 people.

By contrast, the present drought affecting the highland region of Wollo, and to a lesser extent Tigray, Gonder and Northern Shoa, has received little publicity although initially it had the potential to reach the proportions of the 1973/1974 famine.

By the end of 1974 there was an improvement in the highlands of Ethiopia because the main rains were much
better than in previous years and the drought was thought to have been broken.

Right. An Ethiopean Red Cross volunteer on the left of the photo. Photo: Ato Tsehayou Seyoum.

While the Ogaden war of 1977-1978 was being fought, the highlands of Wollo, Tigray, Gonder and Shoa were again suffering from a shortage of rain. In 1977 the Belg, or small rains, which normally fell in February/May were inadequate and the farmers had to rely on the main rains, June to September. These were late in coming and continued 6 weeks longer than normal up to the end of October thus creating
favourable conditions for the spreading of a fungus borne disease -ergot -in addition to the premature germination of crops before they were harvested. Locusts and various crop pests also contributed to crop destruction and still remain a threat. As a result, 1977 saw a serious crop failure which soon produced famine conditions. By June 1978 these were rapidly becoming comparable to the period preceding the famine of 1973. The seriousness of the situation was confirmed by a helicopter survey conducted by the Relief and Rehabilitation Commission (RRC) Nutrition and Surveillance office in February 1978. Following the RRC began providing relief assistance to the affected population in the highlands, but on a limited scale because the Port of Assab was badly congested with accumulated cargo and only 10,000 tons of grain per month (half the normal figure) were moved from the port to the interior. In addition, because of hostilities, the ports of Massawa and Djibouti were closed to Ethiopian traffic. Therefore, it was only possible to ship a small quantity of relief food into the country, although the potential famine had been predicted by the government since October 1977.

Left: Bob Mckerrow, IFRC. examining one of thousands of badly malnourished children in the wollo highlands. Photo: Ato Tsehayou Seyoum

In early May the government formed a Natural Disaster Aid Co-ordinating Committee, designed to co-ordinate the drought relief operation and all international aid. Members were representatives from Government ministries, RRC and the Ethiopian Red Cross. This Committee had a regional committee based in Dessie. The only truly field-operational organisations were the Government’s RRC, the Ethiopian Red Cross and, in a limited area, Catholic Relief Services. All national and international aid is channelled through these bodies.

From April/May the port congestion improved and emergency commitments of grain and supplementary food, made available by WFP, UNICEF, EEC and USAID in 1977, were moved in larger quantities to the hinterlands, which gave the RRC the means to intensify its relief distributions in Western Wollo between May and early July, before the roads were closed by the rainy season. During this time 20,305 tons of locally produced and imported grain were distributed to about 600,000 beneficiaries by every means available private and military trucks, planes, helicoptersand pack animals.

In addition to the efforts of the RRC the Ethiopian Red  Cross Society began providing medical assistance,
supplementary food, blankets and clothing to all drought affected regions.

Often we walked for days up to 13,500 feet where people were trying to till the land for a living. An overnight stop in a tent. Photo: Bob McKerrow collection.

For the distribution of food in Western Wollo, the RRC set up 14 strategically located distribution centres. Two of these distribution centres are in the remotest part of Wollo, some one to two days’ walk from the nearest road. The policy is to bring food to the people and keep them in their villages to avoid the problems caused by roadside shelters which were set up in 1973/1974. Additionally when people remain in their villages they are able to participate in government food for work programmes which are designed to improve the land and local infrastructure. Attached to each distribution centre is a temporary clinic run by the Ethiopian Red Cross and supported by the Ministry of Health and RRC. These clinics provide medical assistance and a vaccination programme.

Each distribution centre and clinic has one nutritional worker sponsored by OXFAM/UNlCEF/SCF (Save the Children Fund) to record the nutritional status of people in the vulnerable groups, supervise the supplementary feeding programme and give nutritional education to mothers. Since
the revolution the Provisional Military Government of Socialist Ethiopia has greatly improved the administrative infrastructure in the rural areas by forming farmers’ associations, each grouping about 2,000 heads of families with an elected Chairman who is responsible to a Chairman at district level.

                                                                      Map pf Ethiopia

Whereas previously the distribution of relief was difficult in Ethiopia, the advent of these farmers’ associations makes distribution easy as each Chairman has the numbers and names of those in his association. Each day of the week the affected population from the different farmers’ associations are requested to come to the distribution centre where an orderly distribution takes place. People are not permitted to camp around the centres.
In June a Multi-Donor Mission under the auspices of FA0 visited Ethiopia to determine the food requirements for the following 10 months. After its survey the mission was in agreement with the Government’s estimates and view that the 1978 harvest would probably not exceed the poor harvest of 1977. Apart from commercial imports the mission estimated that food aid grains -200,000 metric tonnes and
27,000 tonnes of rehabilitative food -were needed to feed two million people. On the basis of the Multi-Donor mission report the Director General of FA0 launched two appeals on 13 July 1978 to the international community as identified by the mission and UNDRO also launched an appeal. The League of Red Cross Societies launched an appeal to its members to support the relief operation of the Ethiopian Red Cross some
three weeks earlier.

By the end of the rainy season, September/October 1978, the situation in the highlands was extremely critical, as the food which was distributed in May/June had been consumed by the population. Furthermore, the figures of the drought affected populations had risen to 2,106,469 comprising Wollo
-1,109,869; Tigray -561,600; Gonder -300,000 Shoa -60,000; and Northern Harerge -75,000. Fortunately by mid- October WFP relief grain shipments arrived in Assab and were distributed quickly which averted a serious predicament.

An Emergency Transport Unit (ETU), a UNDP/ILO assisted project administered by the state-owned National Transporta- tion Corporation, was set up in 1978. It comprised a fleet of 163 trucks and truck/trailer combinations to move relief items from the ports to the interior.

In view of the succession of poor harvests due to the severely degraded land and associated environmental
problems, the Government of Ethiopia has decided to trans- locate 250,000 people from the drought affected highlands to more fertile and amenable parts of the country. Already 20,000 people have been translocated. The cost of this translocation programme is 7l,000,000 Ethiopian Birr of which the people of Ethiopia raised 45,000,000 by the end of February 1979.

Apart from the government’s plan to resettle 250,000 people, many other long term measures have started or are being planned for the highland regions. Following the WFP/ FA0 Evaluation mission, which visited Ethiopia in November 1978, the WFP has proposed the amalgamation of its soil conservation and reforestation projects into a single project, aiming at the rehabilitation of forest, grazing and agricultural
lands. This would run for 4 years at a total cost to WFP of U.S. $48,389,000. Under this project WFP will provide 180,289 metric tonnes of wheat and 7,212 metric tonnes of vegetable oil, which will be used to create incentives tG farmers’ associations to carry out measures to protect and conserve soil and water resources, natural vegetation, to undertake road building and to carry out an integrated forestation programme on a catchment by catchment basis.

In the Western escarpment /NW. Shoaw. Wollo/W.Tigray regions simple land use planning sub-projects will be started by analyzing 150,000 aerial photographs to define physiographic units and land evaluation. Aerial photography of the escarpment, coupled with ground survey work, will give updated population density and land use for planning. Proposals have been made to establish a specialised land use planning unit for disaster areas.

The proposals prepared by a British team for the rehabilitation of Tigray, which would cost an estimated 30
million US.$ to implement, will be examined and possibly implemented in pilot catchments using FA0 assistance.

The RRC rehabilitation for the N.E. escarpment has already started with the KOBO-Alamata Agricultural Development Programme. Phases 1 and 2 will be concentrated on extension development, reforestation and soil conservation.
The implementation of the Sirinka Catchment pilot project covering 40,000 ha has started. The main harvest (November/ December in the highlands) of 1978 has not exceeded the poor main harvest of 1977. Relief assistance will thus he required for 1979 until the main crop is harvested in approximately December 1979.

The author left Ethiopia mid-March 1979 and at that time infrastructures and the provision of well organised relief give the small rains (in the highlands) were insufficient and the definite hope for the drought affected highlands of Ethiopia. possibility of at least a partial crop failure looms large.
All hopes are now pinned on the main rains for 1979 which assuming they are adequate, will break the present drought.

Acknowledgernenrs -The author gratefully acknowledges the assistance provided by Peter Simkin, World Food Programme Adviser  in Ethiopia for the technical aspects of this article.

Comment from my companion on nearly all trips in 1978-79, Tsehayou Tseyoum (photo left)

Obviously, reading your article and seeing those pictures brought back memories of the time we had together on the highlands of Western Wollo. The horror we saw on the face of some of the starving kids was unbearable. To this day, I remember the face of the kid who flew with us by the military helicopter to the Children’s Hospital in Dessie. You might recall, we saw the same kid after a few months at a play ground of the hospital’s foster care, and he was back to being a normal kid. Thanks for posting this article.


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