The three nomads had gone to get food for their starving families. They had traveled 60 kilometers on their camels in the scorching heat, but all possible water points on their way in the Ethiopian region of Afar had dried up. As a driver the aid organization APDA (Afar Pastoralist Development Association) found the three men, two had already died of thirst and the third was delirious. The driver quickly fetched water and saved the nomad’s life.
“When you meet someone who is dying of thirst, you shouldn’t immediately give them large gulps of water because that could lead to a heart attack,” says Valerie Browning, APDA’s program director. “You have to splash him first to cool his body temperature, and then gradually give him small sips of water.”
Almost every resident of Afar knows that, says Browning. Because thirst is a tormenting companion for many people there. The rocky region is already one of the hottest still inhabited in the world, where it can be more than 50 degrees Celsius in summer. But now the rain is failing more and more often, the droughts are increasing. The reason for this is climate change.
Living with nomads instead of pension provision
Browning has seen the changes. Born in Australia, she married an Afar man and 33 years ago traded a pension and social security existence for a life in one of Africa’s most arid regions. The trained nurse has been running the aid organization APDA with other Afar for around 30 years. This sees its task in strengthening the Afar, most of whom are nomads, in such a way that they can determine their own future as much as possible. This is done through economic training, the establishment of health centers and also the strengthening of women’s rights – this is how APDA has been fighting against female genital mutilation for a long time.
APDA is, and this is important to Browning, an organization rooted in the region. “It’s not enough to just throw away food without making sure that people themselves become productive. And there’s no point in inverting people’s concepts from the outside that aren’t rooted in the communities themselves,” she stresses.
But that doesn’t mean that APDA doesn’t work with Western organizations that provide resources and knowledge. And one of the most important partners is the Austrian NGO “Sonne International”, which Browning visited in Vienna on the occasion of its 20th anniversary.
In the course of this, Browning reported to the “Wiener Zeitung” that her organization is now having to provide more and more acute emergency aid. Because the climate crisis is keeping the nomads trapped in a vicious circle: pastures are drying up and the cattle are dying. The time from one drought to the next is now too short to replenish the livestock sufficiently – especially since a goat cannot give birth to young ones as long as it is not sufficiently fed.
“In the past, the Afar ate a lot of meat and drank milk,” reports Browning. Today, many sell their emaciated goats to get grain for their families. But even that only lasts for a few days, and in the end they are dependent on food aid.
Especially since another catastrophe has increased the suffering of the people in Afar: the Ethiopian civil war has also spread to this region. The central government and the People’s Liberation Front of Tigray (TPLF) are fighting each other. One of the country’s most important supply routes, which connects Ethiopia with the port of Djibouti, runs through Afar. Afar fighters defended these against the TPLF rebels, who were unable to take the road as a result.
Burning houses and killed cattle
The fighters of the Tigriner ethnic group invaded parts of Afar and, according to Browning, committed serious attacks. They carried out indiscriminate killings, burned down houses, wantonly destroyed health centers and schools. In addition, they cut off people from their supplies. TPLF fighters took their goats from the nomads, sometimes killing them or setting sharp dogs on them.
“It’s a terrible destruction that is pointless,” says Browning. Their reports coincide with those of other eyewitnesses in the region.
Browning’s organization continued to try to reach people. “Our employees are familiar with the region and willing to take risks,” she says. An employee was killed, two trucks were robbed. The TPLF has since withdrawn from Afar, but no one knows if war will return.
What remains are the destruction and the misery. APDA continues to bring water to the worst drought regions. But these trips have now become much more expensive due to inflation. Also because the cost of petrol has risen massively in Ethiopia.
Continue belief in long-term development
But even if the situation is extremely bleak at the moment, Browning has not lost faith in long-term development. People would still have the opportunity to cope with the increasingly difficult circumstances. There is still a lot of water in the ground. And if the nomads were provided with fodder, the herds could recover.
Since animal husbandry is becoming more and more difficult, it is also necessary that the very unbalanced diet of the Afar people change. Here, APDA, together with Sonne, runs a project co-financed by the Austrian Development Agency (ADA), in which Afar from different communities are made familiar with growing grain or fruit. Ethiopian universities are also involved to find out which foods are best suited for cultivation in this difficult region.
Browning reports that the first communities have already grown spinach or bananas, which of course is only possible near rivers. “They could hardly believe that it could grow with them,” she reports. “But that opens a door for better development. It’s not all negative.”