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Drought Rages in Ethiopia's Somali Region

The Somali region of southeastern Ethiopia is being hit by a drought that is also affecting parts of Kenya and Somalia. Residents and aid workers fear that widespread famine may grip the area, if the rains do not come soon. Cathy Majtenyi recently visited two districts in the region and files this report for VOA.

There is no space left in the nutrition unit at Gode Hospital. Almost a dozen women sit on the floor cradling their bone-thin babies and toddlers, who wail weakly at intervals.

Adar Mohamud has traveled 90 kilometers to bring her seven-month-old son Faiso in for treatment. She holds tiny, delicate Faiso as she reflects on her predicament. Adar says that there has been no rain for two seasons now and the family's livestock is dying.

Meanwhile, district health officer Abdullahi Ali Haji visits the units of the 60-bed hospital, which serves at least 500,000 people in seven districts and coordinates a number of health posts and centers.

He tells VOA more and more people are coming into Gode town from the rural areas looking for food and other assistance because their livestock are dying and the crops have failed.

"If you see the difference between the malnourished children who were coming to the Gode Hospital nutrition unit two months ago, the average admission of malnourished children was between two and three," he said. "But now, we're talking about five to seven a week, so this is the difference - it's almost double."

Abdullahi says there have been increases in respiratory infections, malaria cases, and diarrhea diseases, which he says are all related to malnutrition.

The failure of the October to December "deyr" rains, and poor "gu" rains occurring from March to May, have resulted in some 1.5 million people in the Somali region requiring emergency food aid.

More than 500,000 people are also in critical need of water, with more than 56,000 children five years and under facing malnutrition in the Somali and Oromiya regions.

Most of the people who live in the region are pastoralists who depend on livestock for a living. The rains' failure has greatly reduced the availability of pasture for grazing, and most crops on farms without access to water have withered away.

The United Nations says people in the region are facing what it classifies as "extreme" food insecurity that includes "pre-famine" conditions.

In Kalafo, some 90 kilometers from Gode, Ebla Hajin sits in her stall at the town's market. She is surrounded by bright red tomatoes and packages of spaghetti, rice, sugar, maize, tomato paste and chicken stock, among other things.

Ebla gets most of her food and supplies from nearby Somalia. She says business has been rough over the past few months.

Ebla says she has noticed a big change in the market since the beginning of the drought. She says the turnover of her stock is very slow. People do not have enough money to buy food and other items. She says she spends the whole day at the stall - frequently selling little or nothing. She says the drought has hurt income.

Consequently, prices have shot through the roof in Kalafo. For instance, a tin of tomato paste that cost 1,000 Somali shillings, four months ago, now goes for 2,000 Somali shillings.

The last drought in the Somali region occurred in 2000, which killed an estimated 98,000 people. Aid officials are hoping to avert similar effects in this drought.

The World Food Program has been conducting food distributions since December, while the U.N. children's agency is bringing in water and supporting mobile health teams.

Ahmed Ibrahim Hussein is a field monitor with the World Food Program's Gode sub-office. He says that, although emergency aid is important, a more long-term approach to the problem of drought is needed.

"Already we have to change this system of free food to the people," he said. "That is everybody's feeling actually including the beneficiaries. Along with the relief operation, I think recovery and rehabilitation could be incorporated in a way so that things will improve in the future in terms of development. This area is very prone to droughts. It has become recurrent and continuous. Things should go simultaneously or parallel: emergency and development as well."

Hussein recommends that a safety net-type program, found in other parts of Ethiopia, be implemented in the Somali region. This could include work-for-food initiatives where recipients construct schools, roads or other public works in exchange for food.

He also recommends the construction or rehabilitation of ponds, underground storage tanks and other infrastructure to collect and store rainwater so that it could be used in dry times. Hussein says digging or refurbishing shallow and hand dug wells, complete with hand pumps, could also increase the water supply.