Water for Food

Addressing Ethiopia’s drought-induced humanitarian crisis

March 31, 2016
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Patrice McMahon visits with a farmer from a Gurage village in Ethiopia.

By Patrice C. McMahon, Water for Food Institute Faculty Fellow and associate professor in the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Department of Political Science

Like many African countries, Ethiopia is currently experiencing its worst drought in almost a century. Ten million people are in need of food aid, while more than 75 percent of the population is without a clean water supply. The situation is particularly acute in northern Ethiopia.

This is tragic news for one of the poorest countries in the world. Despite double digit economic growth in the last few years, Ethiopians still make about $50 per month and almost one-third of the country lives in poverty.

Yet, my recent visit to Addis Abba has made me optimistic that Ethiopia is taking important steps in the right direction. Most importantly for my interests in humanitarian affairs, it is a country that appreciates the severity of its drought-induced crisis and is committed to feeding its own population and addressing long-term water and food insecurity.

During my two week stay in Addis Abba, I interviewed more than two dozen water experts and participated in the World Conference on Humanitarian Studies, presenting a paper on water networks and transnational politics.

Ethiopia is not alone in trying to manage its problems with water and food insecurity. In fact, there are more than 65 different humanitarian organizations operating in Ethiopia, aiding government-led efforts. The group includes international organizations like UNICEF and the World Bank; international nongovernmental organizations like World Vision, Oxfam and CARE, and scores of local NGOs. Many of these local actors are faith-based groups like the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, which has been working in the water sector since 1998.

Yet, all of these efforts — whether they are focused on disaster management, sanitation, conflict prevention or conflict transformation — are coordinated and led by the Ethiopian government. In talking to a range of experts, every person I interviewed stressed that the Ethiopian government has made water security, sanitation and food security a top priority. In 2013, it created a Disaster Risk Management framework within the national government. Last year, according to the director of research in the Ministry of Water, a working group within the ministry was organized to better coordinate international and domestic efforts.

There are many benefits to having a strong, government-led structure at the center of drought-induced humanitarian crises. Within such a structure, international actors bring a great deal to the table, in addition to much needed financial assistance. Local officials I interviewed stressed that international groups often have unique expertise and use an inclusive, participatory approach. All of this has helped build the capacity of local actors working on water and food insecurity.

I was interested in meeting some of the people who benefited from this dense network of humanitarian organizations. World Vision Ethiopia generously provided me with such an opportunity, taking me to a Gurage area, about five hours southwest of Addis Abba. Among other projects it has done, World Vision provided the leadership to build a well for a village of several hundred.

Before the well was built, women had to walk more than thirty minutes for water. I certainly hadn’t thought about it, but fetching water is not only a time drain, but can also be (and frequently is) a dangerous activity for these women. Through the help of a translator, the women I met explained the benefits of having clean, accessible water so close to home.

It is easy for many of us take water and food for granted, but in Ethiopia, especially now, this is not the case. Thankfully, both the Ethiopian government and its resilient people, along with a range of international actors, are taking concerted and pragmatic steps to try to avoid the famines of the past.

Women from a Gurage village in Ethiopia gather water from a well made possible by World Vision.

Women from a Gurage village in Ethiopia gather water from a well made possible by World Vision.

McMahon is an associate professor in the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Department of Political Science and a Faculty Fellow at the Water for Food Institute and UNL’s Program on Women and Gender Studies. She is currently working a project called Transnational Networks and Water Security.

The Water for Food Institute at the University of Nebraska welcomes blog articles from outside contributors. Please note that the views expressed by guest authors represent their own views, and not necessarily those of WFI, the University of Nebraska or any institutions with which WFI may be affiliated.

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