Denise Hall: Trocaire helps hope flow in Ethiopia

Q&A: Fintan Maher
Having an unreliable and at times non-existent water supply has given me a new appreciation of how precious water is, and just how complicated it can be to get a supply to your house. 

But it’s nothing compared to the lengths that hard-pressed farmers in Northern Ethiopia are being forced to go to in an attempt to grow food.

With around 88 million inhabitants, Ethiopia is the most populous landlocked country in the world. According to the International Monetary Fund, Ethiopia’s per capita income is the second lowest in the world.

It has been estimated that nearly 70% of Ethiopia’s landmass is cultivatable, yet only 12% of the land is under cultivation and permanent crops.

And to compound their problems of drought, famine and war, as of 1994, 600,000 acres of arable land were washed away each year.

This year, Trocaire’s Lenten Campaign features one of Ethiopia’s hardest-pressed areas, the mountainous areas of the north.

The face of 13-year-old Mahlet graces their familiar collection boxes. She lives in a small village close to the border with Eritrea, with her parents and five siblings. The family have two small plots of land on which they grow vegetables and grain.

Life in this region has never been easy, but Mahlet and her family have had enough to get by on and with a little left over to ensure that the children can attend school. Education is an absolute priority for Ethiopian parents, no matter how hard-pressed they might be.

Recently however the challenge of surviving off such small plots of land has become almost impossible, no matter how hard they work. Throughout the region, rainfall has been decreasing, due to climate change.

The traditional rainy seasons, which were once reliable, are now erratic and almost constant drought is putting a huge strain on people’s ability to cope, reducing a marginal existence to almost an impossibility.

But the region wasn’t always dry and many people, including Mahlet’s parents, remember a time when the mountaintops were green and covered in vegetation.

Extreme climatic events often force people living in poverty to sell what little assets they have to cope. They may reduce the number of meals they eat in a day, children may be forced to leave school to work, or migrate to the cities.

This Lent, Trocaire is highlighting the challenges facing farmers and their families who are experiencing prolonged drought.

They are using machinery to dig deep for hidden water tables and laying irrigation pipes to bring water to communities such as Mahlet’s. These projects are a vital lifeline to people whose natural water supply has been turned off by climate change.

Trocaire’s Lent spokesperson Fintan Maher has just returned from Mahlet’s village, hugely impressed with the generosity and hard-working ethos of its people.

Fintan, what were your initial impressions?

I was amazed by the incredible dignity of the people. The whole village were very friendly and welcoming to us. Even though they had very little, they wanted to share what they had with us. We were brought into Mahlet’s house and given coffee. It was a ritual. They roasted the beans then let us smell them, then ground them by hand, brewed them and made the coffee. It was all they had to share with us.

Then we went to where Mahlet’s dad Ali is trying to farm and although it is very beautiful, it was hard to imagine how you could grow anything there. It’s mountainous and the mountains are so bare that they looked like a lunar landscape.

There are so many mountains in that area that they have stopped naming them.

What sort of farming techniques have they been using in such a difficult area?

Even though it’s very rough land, they have terraced the mountains, accessed underground aquifers and dug wells, sometimes as deep as 150ft. And this has all been done by hand.

But now they need to go even deeper to find the water table. Our programmes have allowed them to use machinery and use community workers, to make their work faster and easier.

But these are very hard working people and they never complain.

Ali told us that they used to know when the rains were coming and they could plan their crops accordingly. Even though they have always worked hard, they used to grow enough. Now they are living from hand to mouth and they don’t know what the future will bring.

Were the people aware of the disastrous effects that global warming has had on their area?

It is a tragedy the people who have done the least to cause this problem are suffering the most. Mahlet and her family, for instance, have not contributed to climate change.

They have no car, no factories, no oil-dependency, yet they are the people suffering from hunger as a direct consequence of global emissions. I talked to Ali about this but instead of being resentful toward the developing world, he said instead he thought we all had to work together to solve the problem.

This Lent, we are highlighting the challenges facing farmers like Ali who live in drought, and the work we are doing to dig deep, construct irrigation pipes and bring water to communities like Mahlet’s.

What kind of young lady is Mahlet?

Amazing, confident and articulate, top of her class. She was thrilled when we told her her picture would be on boxes and posters across Ireland. She’s very keen on school and would like to be a doctor or a teacher. Like other Ethiopian parents we met, for Ali the most important thing is his children are educated. Mahlet’s whole family were very moved to think people in Ireland care about them, It’s a huge thing for them.

They don’t want handouts, just the support that will allow them to help themselves. One way we can mitigate the effects we are having on climate change is to help people like Mahlet and her family.


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