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The World Must Step Up and Respond to Ethiopia's Drought Crisis

14/04/2016 17:24 | Updated 15 April 2016

When four-year-old Malou first arrived at the Save the Children stabilisation centre in the small community of Fedeto, she was severely underweight and limp, her feet swollen. But having been treated for the effects of malnutrition, and it seemed starting on the road to recovery, she now has a second battle on her hands - to overcome pneumonia. This is just a small illustration of Ethiopia's current crisis: that a child who fought one life threatening illness would emerge from that, only to be exposed to another.

Children are at the forefront of this suffering, amid the country's worst drought in fifty years, with six million said to be at risk. $600million is needed to tackle this crisis. I implore the international community to step up and urgently respond.

The irony is that the environment has been particularly cruel to a country which has been doing all it can to improve itself. Perceptions of Ethiopia are fraught with contradictions but there are two equally important facts which are at risk of being lost in the mire.

Ethiopia is not any country. It is a country right in the middle of an economic u-turn - despite ranking the second poorest country in the world, it is now achieving steady economic growth, at an average of 10% per year in the last decade, and set to be a middle income country within the next ten years.

This is not just any drought. This is the worst drought in fifty years. The extent to which the rains have failed is unprecedented, regional temperatures are higher than ever, and we are dealing with the strongest El Nino on record. The damage caused by climate change and erratic weather patterns driven by El Nino are only going to see conditions worsen.

Ethiopia is financially secure enough to respond to the crisis alone if it has to, but not without detriment to the massive development progress it has made so far - or without damaging its ability to respond well, in the future.

Rainfall patterns are deteriorating at an alarming rate in East Africa. The spring rains, which usually bring fifteen days of rainfall a month between February and April are now two months overdue. In places like Siti Zone in the east of the country, this is the third failed rainy season since mid 2014. The landscape paints a bleak picture of dried leaves on tiny shrubs, peppered with the carcasses of emaciated livestock and dried out, cracked, riverbeds. Around a third of the population - including six million children - are now entering the 'hunger season', facing critical food shortages.

It is important to note that Ethiopia has made huge strides since previous droughts. In 1990, it was estimated that 204 Ethiopian children in every 1000 would die before their fifth birthday. By 2012, the country had reduced this toll by 67%, meeting its Millennium Development Goal commitment to reduce child deaths, three years ahead of time.

The Ethiopian Government has shown strong leadership in the food crisis too, committing an unprecedented $380million to tackling the growing emergency. NGOs have worked with the government in recent years to channel development funds into strengthening resilience, and the country is better equipped than ever to respond to the crisis. These factors - are the reason we are not seeing the loss of life we saw previously.

But the scale of this crisis cannot be overstated. An estimated six million children - are currently hungry, or without access to clean water. Save the Children is working closely with the government to identify the areas in most critical need. Much of our work in the 100 stabilisation centres we operate in focuses on treating moderate acute malnutrition, and preventing it from reaching the 'severe' stage, which is much harder to recover from, and has long term implications on child development and health. Children who are malnourished do not have the resilience to fend off other childhood illnesses, like measles or diarrhoea - two of the major causes of under-five mortality.

In Fedeto, I met Habiba, a former pastoralist whose family had struggled for months without clean water, watching as her livestock died off in front of her. Like her neighbours, she was confronted with difficult decisions - to wait for the rains, knowing the animals may not survive, or to leave them to perish, and have no livelihood to return to. The decision was eventually made for her, when six of her children fell ill, as a measles outbreak wracked the small community that had been home to her all of her life. Weakened and already underweight, her children were at high risk of the illness. Save the Children's outreach teams brought Habiba and her family to Fedeto, where the children underwent a month long course of treatment to bring them to recovery.

The complexities of this crisis go beyond the very real human need I saw playing out in Fedeto. Were it faced with this drought alone, the Government of Ethiopia would have a heady, but manageable task. Sadly, all indications of the climate change trajectory suggest that this is not an isolated case of drought, but rather the paradigm for what is yet to come.

The Government is faced now with dealing with three challenges:

The emergency needs of the 10million people facing food shortage; Preparing to respond to the next drought, which could come at any time, including by ring-fencing funding so it can be released fast, at the first signs of drought, to address critical needs and prevent escalation; and, Developing a longer term sustainable plan for adapting to this changing environment and ensuring livelihoods and communities are given the skills and resources for much needed change. The funding and resourcing must be available to take on all of these tasks, if any of them are to truly succeed.

Ethiopia offers economic hope to the horn of Africa - it is one of the most stable countries in the region, attracting significant overseas investment. It provides a haven to 750,000 refugees, the largest amount in Africa, many of whom are fleeing conflict in neighbouring countries. It is critical that we recognise the value in having a stable country in this region.

The international community invested heavily in bringing Ethiopia to a point where it can lead a self-sustaining economy, capable of withstanding crisis. This included the development of all the early warning systems to identify risk and to stop emergencies like the current food crisis escalating into a catastrophe. It is the failing of us all, if we ignore the sound of the alarm bells ringing now.

Helle Thorning-Schmidt is the CEO of Save the Children International, and a former prime minister of Denmark

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