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Ethiopia: Pastoral communities badly hit in Ethiopia’s worst drought in 30 years

22 Apr 2016

The signs of drought are evident in Ethiopia’s Siti region and it is the pastoralist communities who rely on their livestock that are bearing the brunt of the suffering. Médecins Sans Frontières has been active in the areas since late 2015, providing care to mothers and running therapeutic feeding programmes for the region’s malnourished children.

Under the Ethiopian Ministry of Health, Médecins Sans Frontières run a nutritional stabilisation clinic in the small village of Asbul which receives the most urgent cases of childhood malnutrition. Other aid agencies are involved in water and food distribution. From this central base, Médecins Sans Frontières also sends out community health teams that move from settlement to settlement, screening children for malnutrition and vaccinating against diseases like measles, hepatitis B and polio. “On any given day we can see 90-200 children,” explains Fardowsa Jigre, team leader of an Médecins Sans Frontières outreach team.  “When we see a malnourished child it is a sure sign that the whole family is hungry. But we can only help the most vulnerable.” 

"When we see a malnourished child it is a sure sign that the whole family is hungry"

The pastoralists are often in the most remote corners of the region, as they move further and further away looking for water for their remaining animals. This makes it difficult for the government or any of the aid agencies to find them and provide help. But inevitably a time comes when these herders and their families have to make a choice- either to remain with their dwindling livestock or to abandon it all and come to more populated areas where they can get support. Farah Ateyo is a father of four young children who was forced to make this difficult decision and walked the 100km, with his family, to the Médecins Sans Frontières base in Asbuli. By the time that he had completed this three-day journey, his youngest daughter Hawa was in such a bad state that she had to be admitted to the Médecins Sans Frontières Therapeutic Feeding Centre. Doctors immediately diagnosed her with the advanced stages of malnutrition with severe respiratory problems. For several days, she needed a ventilator to breathe.

Since reaching the Médecins Sans Frontières treatment centre two weeks ago, Hawa has been making progress but still has some way to go. The combination of intensive medical care and high-energy nutritional supplements has made a difference and she is now smiling and playing with her father. But Farah is adamant that he will never return to his old home in Qainder. “I thank Allah, and after him Médecins Sans Frontières, for everything that I have now, but I have no animals or a guarantee of rains. Why would I inflict this unhappiness again on my family? There is no longer anything for us there.” His attitude is typical amongst most of the families who have arrived to Asbuli and settled there.  

While Médecins Sans Frontières has been well received in the surrounding communities, it can be a struggle to make some mothers accept the prescribed treatment especially when there is so little to eat. According to Fardowsa: “Often a mother will have so little for the family that she will share out the Plumpy’nut therapeutic bars prescribed for her sick child. They refuse to acknowledge that if the child does not get the necessary nutrition it will die. But at times we can make a connection. I feel that that, as a local woman who speaks the same language, they will focus on my words and take time to consider what I have to say. For the whole team, the hardest thing is knowing that time is against us. If the drought continues, more people will arrive and I don’t know if we will be able to respond to their needs.”