On the dusty plains outside Erer in Ethiopia’s east, the rotting carcasses of cows, goats, donkeys and camels bake under the hot African sun, fodder for hungry vultures and stealthy hyenas.
Until recently 40-year-old Jama and his family called these lands home, and had done for generations.
But about a month ago Jama, his wife, mother and their 10 children made the difficult choice to sell their possessions and abandon these lands and their pastoral life. They were forced out when all but 10 of their 450 goats and cattle died from the drought.
Now they live in a small shack in one of the newly minted informal settlements in town and rely on support from the government and Save the Children to survive.
“This is the worst drought in my life, my father’s life, even my grandfather’s life,” Jama said. “No one can remember anything like this before; we weren’t prepared for it.”
Livestock are the lifeblood of these arid low lands, their milk providing a vital source of nutrition, while the animals themselves are a commodity for trade. Here, wealth is defined by the number of cows and goats one owns rather than money.
So far this year, hundreds of thousands of livestock have perished from the drought in Ethiopia according to local government officials, with many more expected to die before year’s end.
Jama and his family couldn’t have seen this coming. At the beginning of 2015, rainfall forecasts showed a relatively normal year ahead. It was only in May, after the smaller Belg rains failed, that an El Niño weather pattern was declared, which is now predicted to be the strongest on record.
This failure of the Belg meant the planting season was limited, and when the typically strong Kiremt rains between July and September were poor too, in some areas — for the first time since 1984 — the alarm bells well and truly sounded.
As a result, the rate of severe malnutrition is increasing rapidly, particularly among children, with more than 350,000 children expected to need lifesaving therapeutic treatment this year alone.
The United Nations has predicted that 15 million Ethiopians will need food aid by January.
Such is the magnitude of this emergency; the Ethiopian government has revised up its emergency funding appeal from $237 million in August to $600 million to the end of 2015.
Time is running out to procure enough food to meet these needs, let alone actually putting hands in pockets to pay for it.
And this is before fully measuring the humanitarian impact of the poor Kiremt rains — the worst in 30 years for much of the Ethiopian highlands, which produce 90 percent of the nation’s crops.
In these fertile lands, which stretch north from just outside Addis Ababa and cover an area roughly the size of New Zealand, farmers are staring at empty fields instead of harvesting crops including teff, wheat, barley and sorghum.
Ethiopia’s global request for help couldn’t come at a worse time, as other large scale humanitarian crises unfold in places like Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Nepal and South Sudan. But we cannot turn our backs on Ethiopia — we must learn from the region’s history books.
You need only look back to the Horn of Africa drought in 2011, which affected 13 million people and saw more than 250,000 die from hunger in Somalia.
Back then, the early warning signs began to emerge a full year before, yet the international community took until the peak of the crisis to act at scale.
But it was too late; much of the damage had already been done.
In the years that followed this scandalous failure of the international system, a range of preventative measures were put in place to ensure history did not repeat itself, including the implementation of large-scale drought resilience programs and strong policy commitments from donor countries.
But here we are again. This drought is now forecast to be the strongest in Ethiopia in 30 years, yet funding commitments from international donors are worryingly low.
The Ethiopian government has responded resoundingly, unlocking $192 million in funding and showing real leadership. They expect to be able to handle most of the impact of the emergency themselves.
Aid agencies are helping too. Save the Children is on the ground in 101 out of 142 of the worst-affected districts, providing support including food, water, medicine and nutrition supplements for children suffering from malnutrition.
The international community must heed the warning and act urgently.
Several areas where the international community needs to respond include the following:
1. Imported food aid to help ensure that local prices don’t rise too much.
2. Therapeutic nutrition support.
3. Disease control and prevention.
4. Emergency water provision.
5. Water sanitation.
Other areas that address more long-term effects, but no less important, include emergency education support to help keep children in schools, emergency livestock support to help pastoralists maintain breeding herds to rebuild livelihoods after the drought, and seeds for farmers who have exhausted their stocks and need help to ensure that they don’t lose a harvest again next year.
This is no ordinary year in Ethiopia; this is a “code red” and it needs to be treated like one.