The man with the Kalashnikov is telling us to go back and eat the dinner. He is highly excited, talking to the driver with chopping hands and wild eyes and an urgency that might engender fear if one hadn’t been told that it was all about the dinner.
He tells the driver to cut the engine until the matter is sorted. For a few minutes we sit there, in the heat, in this settlement of a few buildings, literally in the middle of nowhere near the border between Ethiopia and Eritrea, and wonder whether an international incident is brewing.
This was the scene last month in the course of a three-day visit by Mary Robinson to Ethiopia to highlight the devastation being wrecked by El Nino, a climatic phenomenon that stills the rain, and has been greatly exacerbated by climate change. Robinson was accompanied by the heads of the three Irish aid agencies, Concern, Trócaire and Goal.
Ethiopia is suffering its worst drought in 30 years as a result of El Nino. Twice last year the rains failed, putting the future of 10m onto a perilous footing. They don’t have enough to eat.
Parents are watching their children going hungry once more, evoking memory of the apocalyptic scenes from the 1980s. In desperation, the subsistence farmers who make up the overwhelming bulk of the rural population, are selling their meagre assets.
First it is the contents of their homes, then the primitive farm implements of their livelihoods, and finally the livestock. Tomorrow’s food is being bartered for today’s survival.
Mary Robinson is the UN’s envoy for climate change and El Nino. At a stage when many of her contemporaries are kicking back and enjoying the grandchildren, she is tearing around the world, trying to evaluate and publicise the plight of those already feeling the effects of climate change.
On the day in question, she is on her fourth visit to various projects involving one of the three agencies in the northern region of Tigray. The venue this afternoon was a Women’s Co-operative Grain Bank programme run in conjunction with Concern which is located many miles from the nearest village, on a dusty plain where food must be coaxed from the shallow topsoil with great difficulty.
Robinson is greeted like an arriving celebrity. More than half a mile shy of the settlement, on a road that bumps and grinds, she is forced to leave her vehicle and be walked the final leg of her journey by colourful procession, under a rain of popcorn, which serves as confetti in this country.
A drama of sorts is enacted at the outpost to greet the arrival and then Mrs Robinson is shown around. Up to 1,000 women come here regularly to acquire seeds to attempt to grow corn, maize or wheat to feed their families. They are also provided with lessons in cooking and how to maximise nutrition. This, in an area where over 40% of people suffer from stunted growth.
It was in places like here, in the rural heartlands of Ethiopia, that the famine of the 1980s was at its worst. Lessons were learned from those days. There is now an early warning system.
The government has introduced a form of permanent aid known as the Productive Safety Net Programme (PSNP), which attempts to keep the hunger at bay. In this northern province of Tigray, nearly half of the six million population are dependent on PSNP.
Among the gathering is Welde Gebreal, a 60-year- old farmer who is a father of six. Most of his offspring have left the area in search of work and survival.
“The drought this year is very much worse than anything over the last 30 years,” he says.
“My sons have gone and the women who remain often have to go very far to collect water. Even the water wells are now all dry.”
He wears the haunted look of one who has seen the worst and tries to live in hope that it will not return. Others among the gathering chew the khat leaf, a stimulant that can divert the mind from the hunger that is affecting the body.
Yet despite their desperate circumstances these people of the Amhara region want to share all they have with the visitors. When the delegation is leaving, moving onto the next appointment, there is confusion over the feast that has been prepared. The man with the Kalishnikov wants to know why we don’t stay for food.
Eventually, the head of Goal, Barry Andrews, and one of the Concern personnel agree to return to face the food, which is a huge mix of meats that have been prepared. They do what they can to accommodate the hospitality and rejoin the convoy kicking up dust down the road.
The following morning, Robinson and her delegation venture closer to the border with Eritrea which has been the scene of occasional skirmishes between the two countries. On a road that winds around mountains where little grows, looking down on dry river beds, the conditions that the people of this area of the Ingal mountains must endure are writ large.
Here and there, men push ploughs behind pairs of oxen, and the route is marked every so often by women walking under the weight of barrels on their backs, en route to or from acquiring water. On a ridge, half a dozen army tanks lay idle under tarpaulins, awaiting the next call to action on the nearby border.
Even out here, there are people aplenty. Ethiopia has a very high birthrate with 40,000 babies born each week. The country is the second most populous in Africa at close to 90m and while migration to the towns and cities is a constant, the rural outposts are still densely populated.
As we move deeper into the mountains a pattern can be seen on the barren slopes. Deep ridges run across creating the effect of a terrace. This is part of a project involving Trócaire and local partners to manage the rainfall in order to irrigate the land.
Apart from the terracing there are also check dams and a pumping system is set up from a lake far below to channel the water. For some, the system may appear primitive, but for the people here it is a lifeline to hope of a sustainable future.
Mrs Robinson is greeted by the water management committee who explain the details of the system to her. In the project she is shown, the water is distributed to 56 households, of which 49 are headed by women. The men have left to seek work.
Freweyni is 30 and the mother of three children. Her husband has left to find work, but she hasn’t heard from him now for nearly a month. She stands holding a shovel upright, as if it is more weapon than tool. Freweyni works on the irrigation scheme for 11 hours a day, six days a week.
“I have to feed my children,” she says. “The work here is good. I don’t have any land so I work here, but the rains are getting shorter and shorter every year for the last five or six years. The men leave, but the women can’t because of the children. We must stay.” Eamon Meehan, the chief executive of Trócaire says that this kind of project is all about the long term.
“This is stopping the crisis rather than responding to it as happened so much in the past,” he says.
As the convoy trundles back down the side of the mountain, Mrs Robinson requests an impromptu stop. A group of young people are at the side of the road. She gets out, approaches the group and asks, through an interpreter, whether they will stay in this area when they are finished school.
Three boys respond that yes, they want to stay and hope to do so. A young girl responds. “I will stay here and work if we get the rains.” Everything is dependent on the rains. If the climate continues to change, depleting the frequency and intensity of the annual rainfall, a time may come when this dry and dusty land is uninhabitable.
For now, the irrigation project ensures that there is hope.
Later that day, at a health and stabilisation centre run by Goal, in the shadow of the red Gheralta mountain slab, the former president is introduced to scores of pregnant women and mothers among the 1,000 who attend for check-ups. These women literally walk for hours to get here.
Mulu Gebresisie walked for six hours to be here. She had six children, but two died as a result of malnutrition. Her husband is also dead, having succumbed to TB last year. Today, she came for the occasion of the visit rather than out of a necessity for a check-up, such is the esteem in which she holds a centre that she has attended for years.
“If the time is enough, I will walk back home,” she says, her eyes drifting to a darkened sky. “If it’s not I can stay with friends about three hours away. My neighbours will look after the children.” She works one hectare farm herself since her husband’s death. “I plough with the ox,” she says.
“There is no water, but sometimes the government brings us water. It can take me two days to do the ploughing. Even if the land was fertile the hectare is not enough to feed the family.”
She doesn’t want her children to become farmers like their father. “If they finish school they can be nurses or teachers,” she says.
“They have to go live in the city, but it will be a better life.”
Mulu looks once more at the sky, wraps her white shawl-like gabbi around her shoulders and offers a wide smile before taking to the road home to her village, and the ongoing struggle for survival.
El Nino is a phenomenon that occurs once every two to seven years.
It involves the warming of surface waters which leads to an increased temperature of water in the entire equatorial zone of central and eastern Pacific Ocean.
This affects atmospheric circulation worldwide, leading to a drying up of rainfall in large tracts of the developing world.
El Nino is usually followed by an atmospheric reaction known as La Nina, which can lead to flash flooding, which has as much capacity for disrupting farming and forcing people off the land.
The latest El Nino occurred last year and has led to a major humanitarian crisis in southern and East Africa as well as Central America, where agriculture provides the primary source of livelihood.
The UN estimates that around 100m will be affected by the end of this year by the combined impact of both phenomena.
On July 6, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation said that €3.5bn was now required to alleviate the impact of El Nino around the world.
“EL Nino has caused primarily a food and agricultural crisis,” FAO director-general Jose Graziano da Silva said following a meeting of UN agencies in Rome to discuss the impact of El Nino in Africa and Asia Pacific.
The United Nations has called on governments and the international community to increase efforts to boost the resilience of highly vulnerable communities who are struggling to feed themselves, as well as to help them prepare for La Nina.
The FAO said was mobilising extra funding for agriculture, food and nutrition, and to invest in disaster preparedness, he said.
“It [the FAO] will finance early actions that prevent unfolding disasters from happening,” Mr Graziano da Silva said.
Southern Africa had a three-month window of opportunity before the 2016/2017 planting season to take urgent measures to prevent millions of rural families becoming dependent on humanitarian assistance in 2018, according to FAO.
The principal reason that the current crisis far exceeds previous El Ninos is down to climate change, according to a number of different studies.
This was touched on during Mrs Robinson’s visit when she met Ethiopia’s minister for foreign affairs during her visit to the country.
“We have contributed nothing (to climate change) but we are the victims. And although we are the victims we want to be part of the solution,” Minister Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said.
A study by Trócaire into the effects of climate change in the developing world published earlier this year looked at the scientific evidence in five countries, the Philippines, Honduras, Kenya, Malawi and Ethiopia.
The report, entitled Feeling The Heat, found in all of the counties increases in temperature both during the day and at night are clearly observable. Longer dry seasons and hotter days are leading to greater evaporation losses and serious risk of drought, it found.
“When rain does fall, it falls more intensely than before, leading to greater risk of floods, damage to crops and risks to human health through waster and vector borne diseases.
“As the ocean warms, tropical storms are expected to get stronger. This is a huge concern in those countries already massively affected by tropical storms.”
As with much in the developing world, it is often women and children who are disproportionately affected.
In Ethiopia, the most recent drought has affected school attendance for up to three million children. In a country where primary school completion rates are below 50%, girls who miss school for any length of time are unlikely to return.
According to Concern, El Nino has increased the workloads and vulnerability of women in particular.
“Their husbands migrate in search of work. Migration can boost family income but it brings with it a heavy cost.
“It reduces household labour capacity, which impacts on agricultural production and it increases the risk of extra-marital relations, bringing with it the risk of sexually transmitted diseases, and of divorce.”