Every day, 500g of boiled wheat is divided up between two adults, four children, a calf, a goat and a donkey in the Farah household. It is the only food they have had after rains failed for the past two seasons.
The 15kg sack of wheat is provided to about 1,200 people in the Bisle area, which has four settlements, under the government-run Productive Safety Net Programme (PSNP) as payment for work, such as digging water holes.
"It is boiled wheat for breakfast and for the main meal – we don't have anything else – no milk, no meat, no vegetables, no oil," says Maria Farah, the mother. Not surprisingly, two of her children are severely malnourished.
The calf and goat that share their "ari" - a collapsible egg-shaped hut made of sticks and covered with sheeting – are emaciated. It is too hot for them outside, in temperatures that soar beyond 40 degrees Celsius.
There is no water in their settlement, about 54km north of Dire Dawa town in the Somali region, one of the worst hit by drought in Ethiopia. More than a million people have been affected.
On 11 July, the Ethiopian government launched an appeal for US $398 million to help 4.5 million people, up from 3.2 million in March, who are in need of food aid due to the drought.
Launching the July-December 2011 Humanitarian Requirements Document in the capital, Addis Ababa, Agriculture Minister Ato Mitiku Kassa said of the total revised 4.5 million beneficiaries, 41 and 32 percent are in Oromiya and Somali regional states respectively.
For Farah's family in Bisle, the worsening drought continues to threaten their livelihood. Their donkey, tied to a post, used to help carry water from the nearest waterhole about four hours. But he is frail. "He is too sick to move now," Farah said.
These pastoralists have lost scores of animals in the past three months.
"What will you do – you are just taking notes, are you going to help us?" asks Ali Abdi, a 60-year-old pastoralist. This is the worst drought he has seen in his lifetime, he adds.
An unrelenting battle with failed rains over eight years has left them with no sense of a future nor any hope of a better life.
The eastern Somali region depends on two rainy seasons, known as the gu (April-May) and the deyr (October-November). The gu rains provide 60 percent of the water needs for the region, and the deyr 30 percent.
Both rains failed in 2010 because of a particularly strong La Niña. Some parts of the region received rainfall in May but not enough to replenish reservoirs. Bisle received none at all.
Shokuri Abdullai, a mother of six, sends two of her children to school, which is free in Ethiopia. But she has not given much thought to what will become of them. They moved to this settlement from their village about eight years ago when they lost all their animals to drought.
The settlement is among the most accessible in the harsh Somali region during the dry season. "So NGOs drop by with some food now and then and there is a health post," said Abdullai, explaining their choice to make their home in Bisle, which has only become drier.
Maria Guled, a mother of five, the eldest 11, lies awake at night worrying about them. "I don’t have any other family anywhere else to send them to." Her children are unable to go to school because "they are too hungry".
The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) is supporting Save the Children-UK in running a new community-based therapeutic programme at the health post in the settlement. Thanks to the ready-to-use therapeutic food (RUTF), Farah's children have some additional rations.
"But all the food we provide for the malnourished children - a bottle of oil and 25kg of corn soya blend - is consumed by the entire family so the child still remains malnourished," a community health worker said.
There are others who are even less fortunate than the residents of the settlement. A woman with a severely malnourished child at the health post said she had walked two nights from her village for help. She left 10 of her children – the eldest a 15-year-old - alone at home. “I have no choice – my husband left for Djibouti two years ago because of the drought to look for work.” She is too distraught and angry and refuses to be photographed. "What will you do with all this? Are you going to help me?”
But the feeding programme is only three months old, with funding for another three. "It is not a sustainable solution – we need to address the causes,” Katy Webley, director of programmes at Save the Children-UK, said.
Daniel Maxwell, a food security expert and former aid worker in the Horn, said in an email that "underlying livelihoods crisis and threats to food security have to be dealt with in a much more systematic manner, including social protection programmes for the most vulnerable groups even in years when there is not a major humanitarian crisis, and greater emphasis on resilience and reduction of risk”.
He cited Ethiopia’s unique PSNP as the best example of an ideal social programme.
How PSNP works
The PSNP targets people facing predictable food insecurity and offers guaranteed employment for five days a month in return for transfers of either food or cash.
The PSNP has two–pronged benefits in a harsh arid zone such as Somali: cash or food builds resilience; while projects such as reforestation to stem land degradation and water harvesting would help the land recover in the long term.
"But in these conditions [cycles of drought] – there is not much we can do – there has been no room for recovery,” says Abdi Farah, manager of the PSNP in the Shinile woreda [district], where Bisle is located. “The PSNP has become a food aid operation; we need to get to at least 10,000 people in Bisle alone but we don’t have the resources.”
Shahid Haji, of the World Food Programme (WFP), which supports the PSNP with food, said: "We are stuck in the emergency mode – people need aid. They have not had the chance to build any resilience."
Farah Wayis Ali, an elder from the settlement, explained to Valerie Amos, the visiting UN Emergency Relief Coordinator, that they could not work in the PSNP programmes as they needed water. “To collect the water we have to walk four hours – so when do we do the work?”
The government recently started trucking in water. “It is not a lot – we have big fights over water,” says Ali Abdi.
But supplying water is an extremely expensive exercise. Amy Martin, acting head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Ethiopia, said the operation to supply water in the drought-affected parts of Ethiopia from January to March alone had cost at least US$11 million.
Amos said the government was exploring the option of tapping deeper into the water table for a sustainable supply, but this too was costly.
The PSNP also has the option of providing cash but high food prices have rendered the exercise meaningless. Ali Abdi said a 50kg bag of wheat cost 400 birr (almost $24) compared with 150 birr (about $9) for a goat. “The life of our livestock has become so cheap.”
Maxwell said it should be noted “that much of this activity [PSNP] is still donor-supported [and hence subject to the same budget-cutting]”.
Humanitarian access has also been restricted in parts of the Somali region. In June 2011, two WFP workers were detained in the region.
Shadrack Omol, UNICEF's chief of operations and emergency in Ethiopia, said because of “conflict and security issues a number of health posts are frequently not able to provide essential services, [let] alone nutrition programmes”. As a solution, the agency is deploying mobile health and nutrition teams.
Amos said she had met Ethiopia's deputy Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn to discuss a plan to ensure safe access for aid workers to the country’s volatile areas.