Aid Groups In Ethiopia Reshape Approach In New Era Of Climate Change
KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
If you say the words Ethiopia and drought, you might think about dusty landscapes, starving children, mass migrations. But that picture is not Ethiopia today, even though the country has suffered its worst drought in 50 years. NPR's Gregory Warner is in Ethiopia for a picture of drought in the time of climate change.
GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: We're going to start off this journey on a hilltop in Kufuchale in eastern Ethiopia. Chaltu Bidra is a 23-year-old farmer. You could easily paint her as one another of drought's victims. Once a self-sufficient sorghum farmer, now she and her family and 95 percent of her village are dependent on emergency handouts.
CHALTU BIDRA: (Foreign language spoken).
WARNER: Or instead of focusing on what she doesn't have, you could hear what she does.
I hear a cow in there. You have a cow?
BIDRA: (Foreign language spoken).
WARNER: "I do," Chaltu says. Ethiopians go by their first name. In previous droughts, though, someone like Chaltu might have sold off all of her assets - her cow, her plow - just to eat. She might have migrated in search of water. There may have been no one here in this village to plant seeds now that the rains have come and the soil has changed from dusty red mulchy black.
BIDRA: (Through interpreter) If the drought doesn't return and the rains continue, I can be self-sufficient when the harvest comes.
WARNER: So same young woman, two different ways to tell her story. And aid organizations actually struggle with which one of these stories to tell you. Teant Tadesse works for CARE Ethiopia.
TEANT TADESSE: So there's two stories. Like, yes, we need immediate help to cope with the current emergency, but we also want to make the point across that we also work to build the resilience of this community. Therefore, that side of the work is also important.
WARNER: In other words, you can think about drought as an emergency with the expected urgent appeals for food, or you can see drought as a fact of life that's just getting a lot worse under climate change. And that takes more than bags of food. Farmers need strategies to survive this and future droughts without selling everything or migrating. In the case of that farmer, Chaltu, she joined a woman's savings group supported by CARE that helped her raise chickens when her crops failed and make money off the eggs.
BIDRA: (Through interpreter) I told myself I can manage the catastrophe of drought. That's why I'm doing my best to overcome the problem.
WARNER: Teant of CARE says another example of this resilience program is paying the poorest Ethiopians to dig a well that allows the village to stay in place during drought and recover faster.
TADESSE: So they are better prepared to cope with future crisis because, with climate change, who knows what comes?
WARNER: Now, resilience can sound like a jargony aid word, but it commands big money. Of the $3 billion - that's billion - that USAID supplied Ethiopia since the last drought in 2011, more than $680 million was earmarked for resilience programs. So after all of that spending, why are 1 in 5 Ethiopians in need of handouts? So I took that question to the capital, Addis Ababa, to the office of government spokesman Genenew Assefa. He says don't blame Ethiopia; blame the whopping weather pattern called El Nino.
GENENEW ASSEFA: It's the worst ever. We should be given credit for withstanding this disaster.
WARNER: Instead of?
ASSEFA: Instead of sort of bringing the old narrative that Ethiopia is always and permanently a starving country no matter what.
WARNER: It must be said that nowhere I visited did I see or hear about people starving to death. But Ethiopian national pride can also get in the way of fighting this global problem. Back out in the field near the town of Mieso, Ethiopia, I met angry villagers and frustrated aid workers who said that local officials are purposely undercounting families to give them smaller food rations, either to make available food go farther or to put a rosier picture on the true need. The food rations are the caloric minimum for a family, and this under-feeding could undermine some of the very resilience efforts that the U.S. has bankrolled. Tom Staal is the acting assistant administrator for USAID. He said that few predicted how bad this drought would be.
TOM STAAL: OK, the government of Ethiopia is having a heck of a time coping with this. And it's like, well, you know, we've helped them all these years. Can't they cope with this? Well, this one is such a scale that any country would have trouble coping with this one.
WARNER: But, he says, Ethiopia has ignored advice to increase its aid appeal to the West, even as it faces a whole new climate disaster.
OK, so we're hiking down to the river to see the effects of the recent rains.
Our last stop is just a few miles from where we started this story, but the heavy rain that Chaltu and the other farmers we're grateful for is a disaster for Mohammed Abdullah Sani. I find him clearing the remnants of a corn crop destroyed by floods.
MOHAMMED SANI: (Through interpreter) Even for the future to produce over here, we're worried a lot.
WARNER: Heavy rainfall should be good news after a drought, and it is, but there's just so much of it. This is the dreaded La Nina rains following the El Nino drought - heavier rains than there's been in decades. The government expects 200,000 Ethiopians to be displaced by floods, and that number could rise.
I think I hear thunder.
Our interview is cut short by unseasonably early afternoon rain. We start the long hike back up to the cars, back up to higher ground.
All right, we're going to sign off. Gregory Warner, NPR News, East Hararghe, Ethiopia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.