What Drought Relief Looks Like in Gondar, Ethiopia

zemene-villageAs you read this blog, several regions of Ethiopia are witnessing a major drought – the result of lack of rain caused by El Niño weather – leading to malnutrition in rural areas where villagers don’t have adequate access to water, food, or medical care. As this crisis is still evolving and the needs of those affected are growing daily, JDC is working in cooperation with the Ethiopian government and regional authorities to provide assistance.

JDC Ethiopia staff members and volunteers recently traveled to the affected region in Gondar to assess and respond to the situation. Below is a dispatch based on the deployment of JDC’s Senior Program Director for Ethiopia Sam Amiel; Dr. Rick Hodes, JDC’s Medical Director in Ethiopia; and Dr. Alexandra Johnson, a family doctor from Colorado and daughter of JDC board member Alan Rothenberg:

On January 26, we flew from Addis Ababa to Gondar and then drove to East Bellessa, located southeast of the Gondar region where much of JDC’s existing development work takes place. It took four hours by jeep to get there. Our mission involved purchasing 1,000 cartons of Plumpy Nut, the peanut-based food ideal for those suffering from severe malnutrition, and then delivering to the affected region so that it can be distributed to those in the most need.

We then drove to the local health center to visit the nutrition unit, where babies are admitted for up to three weeks for intensive feeding according to the predetermined malnutrition criteria. We were told that seven babies had just been discharged and only one remained. We examined that baby, the male of a set of twins, and he was receiving appropriate care, and doing OK.

The next day, January 27, we drove to Hamusit where they were screening a small group of mothers and malnourished children at a district health center. Hamusit has about 5,000 inhabitants, but the region is populated mostly by small, rural, remote villages.

The center – staffed by eight medical workers, who have degrees but virtually no medical training – was fairly chaotic. Our role was that of medical consultants and we engaged in primary care for patients. After hours of evaluating a steady stream of infants, their siblings, and mothers worn down from hunger, with wounds weeping with neglect and their skin stained from traditional poultices applied when no other medicines were available, Alexandra slipped away from the crowd and visited the outhouse.

“A woman followed me. She looked to be in her mid-twenties, though her face was already deeply lined. Her expression was flat as she approached me, but her eyes were pleading. “Please,” she said as she lifted up her skirt. Behind her were empty, dry plains that this year bore no crops, naked trees parched from drought, and in the distance, arching table mountains, an ancient monastery nestled at the base. But in the foreground she stood, hair covered in cultural modesty, raising her skirt for me behind the latrine and revealing a mass, likely the product of an ill-attended birth.”

With this jarring reminder of the myriad of critical challenges in this part of Ethiopia, on January 28, we drove from Hamusit to Taymen, literally the “end of the road.” At this clinic, we were told they had screened a large group of 625 children. The director  added that 153 children in the area are moderately malnourished and six are severely malnourished. In addition, he reported that 70 percent of mother’s deliver their babies at home, compared to 30% of births taking place in a health center, a troubling issue given the current conditions, which has been exacerbated by a lack of water provision in the area.

We observed this issue during our travels, passing empty water tanks waiting to be filled. To help solve this, we are collaborating with the Gondar Water Authority to dig five deep wells as part of our drought relief effort.

There is little doubt that our work here, coordinated with the government, empowering Ethiopians to care for themselves in this time of need can help alleviate the suffering caused by this terrible drought. To that end, it is encouraging to see that our partnership with the Gondar University Hospital to train their doctors and nurses/midwives over the years has proven essential during this drought relief effort. We will work with them on monitoring the needs in drought-affected areas like East Bellessa and continue to monitor the distribution of nutritional support to the neediest.

In the face of such overwhelming odds, many choose to look away or to dismiss the possibility that aid can make a difference. This trip has proven otherwise.

This sentiment, though simple, was summed up poetically by Alexandra, who noted:

“If the woman with the birth injury makes it to the hospital, she can learn to recognize warning signs in other deliveries. When the cleft lips are repaired, those children may be inspired to help others in a similar manner. When we measure a child’s wrist and discover malnutrition, the Plumpy Nut we deliver can help save a life. In a drought of not solely water, but of resources, education and compassion, I pray that our interactions can plant seeds hearty enough to grow in this desert.”

The effects of the drought are expected to continue and get worse for the coming months.  JDC will continue to assist by providing critical nutritional support for children and increasing access to water where there is none by digging wells.