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Food shortage worsens along the Omo

‘There is no singing and dancing anywhere along the Omo River now. The people are too hungry. The children are quiet. We adults just go into a shelter to sleep, silently........
Food shortage worsens along the Omo

A Kwegu boy at Alaka, Christmas Day 2009.

We don’t chat. We are too hungry. If someone comes we just say, “Where did you come from?” and they just say “I came from Mi” [the plains east of the Omo].  And then they go off. That’s all. The big rains haven’t come for three years.  And now, when we come here to the Omo, there’s no water – where did it go?’ 

Linasi, a Mursi man, 28 December 2009

Reports of a very serious food shortage continue to come from northern Mursiland. The Omo flood last year (August 2009) was exceptionally low, so low that many local people  are answering Linasi’s question by pointing to the hydro-electric dam, known as Gibe III,  which is under construction in the upper Omo Basin.  Whatever the real explanation - and low rainfall in the Ethiopian highlands must be an important part of it - the result has been that large areas of riverside land have not been cultivated this year because the flood waters did not reach them. 

Such places as Kuduma, Alaka and Golati which, in  normal years, produce good crops of sorghum and maize in January and February, now lie overgrown and virtually abandoned. Children are showing unmistakable signs of malnutrition “Now the stomachs of our children are swollen’ said one man. ‘Some sorghum has just ripened, but when they eat it their stomachs do not become normal again. They have diarrhoea. Will they recover or die? We don’t know.’

Other groups who depend on the flood, living along the Omo all the way down to Lake Turkana (Bodi, Kwegu, Nyangatom, Muguji, Kara and Daasanach), have been at least as badly affected. Those with no cattle to exchange for grain with highland traders, have been the hardest hit. This applies to the Kwegu, who live mainly by fishing and cultivation and amongst whom six people, including two children, are said to have died of starvation in recent months. 

With virtually no harvest this year at the Omo, the Mursi have now experienced three successive crop failures. According to local reports, the relief food delivered so far, although obviously welcome, has been far from adequate. All the signs are that,  unless these supplies can be stepped up considerably, the Mursi and their neighbours will face a famine of catastrophic proportions over the next six months.

David Turton
23 February 2010

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