When I saw the East Africa Crisis Appeal launched recently across our screens by the Disaster Emergency Committee (DEC), my thoughts returned to a man I met when I visited Ethiopia with ActionAid in 2005.
Sitting in a small settlement about four hours south of the capital, Addis Ababa, he spoke without emotion about the 1984 famine. “In 1984 one third of this community died … We ate soil mixed with dirty water. All the cattle died. We couldn’t feed our children. People just walked, they knew not where. Many died on the road and were left unburied.”
Today the images and stories coming out of Ethiopia and its neighbours in east Africa are similarly heartbreaking. In 2017, 16 million people are on the brink of starvation and desperately in need of food, water and medical treatment. Drought and conflict mean that people are already dying in South Sudan and Somalia. In Kenya, the government has declared a national emergency and Ethiopia is battling a new wave of drought following the strongest El Niño on record.
This is even more distressing considering the incredible resilience of families in this region who have battled recurring droughts and made amazing strides. While visiting one community in Dalocha where people had had access to clean water for seven years, I met a woman who doled out 40 litres per person at the water kiosk. She told me how this had transformed their lives. “Before the kiosk, we depended on rainwater, river water and digging ponds. We’d walk three or four hours to collect water,” she said.
One of the women told me that girls could now go to school; women could use the time they saved to cook, to wash clothes, to grow vegetables. She said they had begun to discuss business matters with their husbands, aware that when men and women work together, they are stronger.
I’m deeply concerned that all this progress could be lost, now that families are once again forced into a daily struggle to find food. I’m also frustrated with the continual resistance by governments and corporations to tackling climate change which is increasing the frequency of droughts.
But what troubles me most right now is that women, older people and children in this region are suffering once again. The UN has said that 800,000 severely malnourished children are at risk today of dying of starvation unless they get treatment fast.
One member of ActionAid’s team has just returned from Somaliland, and told me about a great-grandmother she met 90-year-old Fatima was holding her three-year-old great-grandson Umer as if she would never let go. Fatima had been taking care of Umer for three months because his parents left with their surviving livestock in search of water and pasture. Fatima has no water or milk and is making do with rice and flour. Every day she prays for rain so that her family will return home.
We can save lives if we move fast. The DEC is made up of 13 member charities who are already working on the ground with communities across east Africa and have the expertise to provide life saving aid to some of the worst-affected people. Right now, they are delivering food, water and medical treatment to millions across the region.
We must not abandon Fatima, her family and the many other families to the ravages of climate change, war and conflict. We can do something to reduce the scale and severity of this emergency and avoid the famine of 1984 happening all over again. But time is running out. Our support has never been more urgent.