Ethiopia Red Cross: Helping communities find solutions in the face of desperation

Published: 8 August 2011 12:43 CET

By Faye Callaghan in Ethiopia

“We planted crops, they did not grow. We dug a pond, but there was no rain to fill it. Now we are in God’s hands.” These are the words of Nura Galaba, who lives in Tuka village in the far south of Ethiopia. The rainy season in April brought just two days of rain, followed by none in October. The last rain this village witnessed was in April 2010.

Now the families rely on government trucks to come and fill the water catchment tank built by the Ethiopia Red Cross Society (ERCS) in 2007. “It is great to have this facility,” says Nura. “But when there is no rain, it cannot fill.” Today the community is cleaning out the huge concrete basin, in the hope that a water truck will come and fill it soon. Without this help, they will have to walk up to ten kilometres to fetch water.

Diarrhoea is common among the children, as many families don’t have access to water purification tablets to cleanse the water they find. Crops have also failed because of the drought, making life hard for everyone. “Because of the lack of food, our bodies are weak, we have no resistance to illness,” explained Nura. “Many people have fallen ill with things like pneumonia and malaria, as we have no energy to fight it.”

“We don’t even know what the solution is now. We have done all we think we can do, but everything depends on rain. Even the drought resistant seeds we planted need some rain. Now we wait for help from the government, NGOs or the Red Cross. We are struggling; nothing we have tried is fruitful,” she laments.  

Red Cross volunteer Guyo Golicha explains that this agro-pastoralist village has not had a good crop for the last eighteen years. Now they think it’s time to try something new. “The crops have been failing at different stages; this year nothing came from the seeds, sometimes at the flowering stage they die. So now they will become purely pastoralists.” But even this idea has its problems as an increasing population means there is less grazing land for all.

Could the solution be camels?

The ERCS is providing camels for a number of families who have lost their livelihoods. “The camels are good because they eat the bushes that cattle do not eat,” Guyo says. “People can also make money by selling the milk; there is more camel milk on the market now than cow’s milk. And they can breed the animals to sell them for meat.” This is a new activity for the Ethiopia Red Cross and they are keen to see if this can help a traditional community move to a more sustainable and income-generating livelihood.

Around twenty kilometres away, men and women gather at a pond. Wako Debesso is a man who looks far older than his 57 years. He fills his jerry can from the pond. “If this pond wasn’t here, I would have to use a well that only has salty water you cannot drink. Or I would have to walk six kilometres to another pond, but that may have dried up now,” he says despondently.

The Ethiopian and Spanish Red Cross Societies worked together to strengthen the Hara pond which now has just enough water to last the 80 communities that use it until the October rains. “We just hope these rains finally come,” says Guyo.

The community has started to grow vegetables around the side of the pond, as the earth stays moist and bushes provide some shade. “We are growing carrots, onions, cabbage and tomatoes,” explains Wako. “This is the first time we have tried this, so we hope we will get more food this way. Otherwise we must rely on any food that the NGOs bring as all our crops were ruined.”

Most communities don’t want to rely on handouts from their government or NGOs, but they need help to adapt their livelihoods to meet the changing conditions. Population growth and a changing environment means that traditional methods of survival may no longer be viable. But with assistance from the Red Cross, they can look towards new approaches to earning a living, and ensuring their families stay well-nourished and healthy.

The ERCS has launched an emergency appeal to fund immediate actions such as distributing food and water, and also to invest in community livelihoods for long-term solutions. For more information please visit

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