As families in Ethiopia face chronic hunger and the immediate effects of drought, MCC is working at long-term solutions and helping to meet urgent needs.

In Ethiopia, 39-year-old Wallay Meselue and other farmers are part of an MCC-supported project to rehabilitate watersheds, gaining back land to cultivate crops.MCC photo/Matthew Sawatzky

Year by year, 60-year-old Chanie Yalew watched the land his family has farmed for generations wash away in the rain. As the topsoil disappeared and the harvest declined, his family faced hunger and malnutrition more and more often.

In the area around the Ethiopian city of Debre Markos, about 200 miles north and west of the capital, Addis Ababa, most rural households suffer through extended periods without sufficient food. It’s so common throughout Ethiopia it has a name — the hunger season.

First the supply of high-value grains such as teff, used to make the traditional bread injera, dwindles. As spring turns to summer, the corn and beans are gone. Sometimes Yalew’s family is down to just cabbage and potatoes. 

“It gives us stomachaches,” Yalew says, “but we have to eat something.”

Families try to survive until the fall harvest. They reduce their daily meals from three to one and rely on less nutritional foods such as wild oats.

MCC’s partner organization in Debre Markos, Migbare Senay Children and Family Support Organization (MSCFSO), estimates that about 60 percent of households the organization works with don’t have adequate food for three months of the year. For about 40 percent, the hunger season lasts up to six months.

“People say, ‘I used my surplus food to get past June. I used my cabbage to get past July. Now it’s August and I have run out of everything,’” recounts MSCFSO program manager Yihenew Demessie. (Read more about his life and work.

The struggle to find enough to eat is chronic across Ethiopia. Now, as the country experiences its worst drought in 50 years, more than 10 million people are affected, according to the United Nations. And even in places where crops can still grow, drought has caused food prices to rise, putting more pressure on families.

Ethiopia Chanie Yalew and family Chanie Yalew, left, and family members Bayleyegen Sewalem, Gojjam Abebaw (5), Amognesh Workneh, Birahanu Abebaw (10), Edmealem Abebaw (13) and Abebaw Chanie participate in an MCC-supported project in the Shegeza watershed.MCC photo/Matthew Sawatzky

MCC is responding to these urgent needs. It is helping farmers such as Yalew improve harvests and reclaim eroded farmland and working with households on finding ways to save money or build up assets so they can better withstand the times of scarcity.

And in the Afar region, where the consequences of drought are more dire and persistent, MCC is meeting immediate needs.

In this part of Ethiopia, east of Addis Ababa and farther north, the terrain of sand and volcanic rock cannot support crops. Instead, families rely on raising cattle, camels and goats for milk, food and income. But since 2010, there’s been insufficient rain to sustain traditional grazing land. As animals perished, malnutrition set in for families.

As drought ravaged the Afar region in 2015 and 2016, more than 500,000 animals died, according to MCC partner Afar Pastoralist Development Association (APDA). MCC is supporting efforts to help families start new herds.MCC photo/Matthew Sawatzky

“I had 50 goats and then lost them all over the last three years,” says Mohammed Asirmo, who lives in the small community of Namma Gubi. “Some died of hunger and some died of sickness.”

At the age of 67, Asirmo has lived through several droughts. This is one of the worst.

“It’s very, very bad,” he says. Every two to three months, Asirmo walked three or four days to get food assistance for his family. “I came back with two or three sacks of grain each time. It’s not enough to feed my family.”

MCC’s partner, Afar Pastoralist Development Association (APDA), estimates that between 2015 and 2016 alone, more than 500,000 animals died of starvation and illness.

A survey identified two small communities Namma Gubi and Daboore, where families suffer from acute malnutrition.

In an effort to help families begin to recover, MCC — through its partnership with APDA and its account at Canadian Foodgrains Bank — is providing 470 households with goats to rebuild their herds and feed for goats as needed.

In the Afar region, Mohammed Asirmo lost all 50 of his goats. Now, he’s received nine female goats and a male goat to restart his herd. By spring, one had given birth, and his children have milk again. “I hope to keep my animals in good shape,” he says. “If they are in good shape, our household is in good shape.”MCC photo/Matthew Sawatzky

Asirmo’s family, like others in the project, received nine female goats and one male goat. By spring of 2016, one had given birth. “Now our children have milk again,” he says.

“I hope to keep my animals in good shape. If they are in good shape, our household is in good shape.” If the goats are healthy, the numbers can double in a year, APDA estimates, and staff hope that small signs of drought recovery will continue, providing enough grazing to sustain new herds.

Goats in Afar

MCC, in partnership with Afar Pastoralist Development Association (APDA), is helping households in Namma Gubi and Daboore, Ethiopia rebuild their goat herds.

In the Debre Markos area, the gap between scarcity and enough is mostly dependent on the health of cropland.

The massive gullies that carry water downward during the rainy seasons have consumed an ever-growing portion of farmland. Farmers compensate by cultivating their remaining fields every season. As they abandon the tradition of leaving fields fallow, land is less productive.

With partner MSCFSO, MCC is using its account at the Foodgrains Bank to support the rehabilitation of land in five watersheds.

Two projects, completed in 2012 and 2015, together benefited about 1,300 households. Through an initial cash-for-work program, residents were employed in restoring their own land.

In the Debre Markos area, yields for Yalew and other farmers drop as farmland erodes into gullies like this one shown by Anteneh Wondimu of MCC partner Migbare Senay Children and Family Support Organization.MCC photo/Matthew Sawatzky

Now, after the rehabilitation work, he’s seeing improvement. “I am planting wheat and in the coming season I will plant fava beans and corn,” he says. Chanie is practicing conservation agriculture techniques, such as leaving crop residue as mulch. “I am seeing that gives me better yields and takes less labor.”

Three additional watersheds are being rehabilitated now. On completion, about 2,370 households and 875 landless youth will have taken part, and about 3,500 farmers in the region will have been trained in conservation agriculture techniques.

It’s work that’s becoming more urgent. Bruce Guenther, MCC’s director of disaster response, describes unpredictable weather and weather extremes such as drought or excessive rainfall brought about by climate change as a new normal in Ethiopia and elsewhere.

In addition to supporting people in times of crises, MCC strives to help communities prepare for the unexpected — promoting strategies like drought-tolerant crops and soil and water conservation — and helping households save and build up assets such as livestock.

“We need to help people adapt, so they are less vulnerable when these shocks happen,” Guenther says.

Laway Fenta and other women fill baskets with stones to line a new drainage canal. Through this MCC-supported project, they’re paid in cash for their work, which helps to rehabilitate the Shegeza watershed, discourage erosion and reclaim farmland.MCC photo/Matthew Sawatzky

The projects also address an emerging challenge in Ethiopia — a shortage of agricultural land for a growing population. Traditionally, younger members are given a portion of family land. But many families have run out of land or the parcel available is too small to provide a livelihood.

In the completed projects, more than 800 young men and women who don’t have land of their own were paid to work in activities such as building dams to control water flow and planting trees and grasses across the watersheds. Some trained in income-earning skills like beekeeping or vegetable production.

Through the project, youth like Habtamu Yismaw who don’t have their own land to farm teamed up to rent land to grow potatoes and other crops they can sell at market.MCC photo/Matthew Sawatzky

These experiences are changing the future for people like 23-year-old Habtamu Yismaw, whose family has land, but not enough to pass on to him. Through the project, he worked in vegetable production and used the income to buy a cow and a bull. And he teamed up with 10 other landless youth to rent community land, where they grow vegetables to sell at market.

“If I didn’t have this I would be doing daily labor in the town, digging holes and carrying gravel,” he says. “Life is good for me now.”

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