Ethiopia drought emergency could see millions drop out of school

Education in emergencies

Genet Tesfaye, 10, and two-year-old brother Samuel travel home with water to the Lode Lemofo community in Ethiopia Picture: UNICEF/Sewunet

For one million children, the worst drought to hit eastern and southern Africa in decades is becoming a life-or-death situation. 

They are suffering from “severe acute malnutrition” – defined as extreme hunger. In Ethiopia alone, the United Nations children’s agency UNICEF says 435,000 children affected by food and water shortages and disease need urgent treatment.

Altogether, 10 million Ethiopians – including six million children – need food assistance. With the situation set to get worse throughout this year, that number is predicted to rise to 18 million.

The drought, fuelled by extreme El Nino weather conditions that have delayed the usual rains, has affected millions of people in many countries, including Lesotho, South Africa, Malawi and Zimbabwe.

Haro Huba school in Oromia region lies empty Picture: UNICEF/Ayene

At risk too is the long-term education of millions of girls and boys across the region. Aid agencies are becoming increasingly concerned about the number of children missing out on school.

About 1.2 million Ethiopian children have already dropped out – a figure that could reach 2.5 million, according to the charity Save The Children.

“The El Niño weather phenomenon will wane but the cost to children – many who were already living hand-to-mouth – will be felt for years to come,” said Leila Gharagozloo-Pakkala, UNICEF Regional Director for Eastern and Southern Africa.

More than 80% of Ethiopia’s population relies on agriculture for their food and income.

An Ethiopian family affected by the drought Picture: UNICEF/Ayene

So students are staying away from school to help their families fetch water over long distances or take care of other children while their parents get water, according to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

Others are having to take livestock in search of water sources. And many have moved away because their families have left their communities following successive crop failures and widespread livestock deaths.

Not being in school does not just affect children’s education and their ability to fulfil their potential. It also leaves children open to dangers such as sexual abuse and exploitation. Some children may be forced into child labour or child marriage.

The BBC visited an Ethiopian school to find out how the drought is affecting the children there. The head teacher at Shebate Gum school, in the northern region of Tigray, said: “In the school, there is no drinking water, now after for sanitation. The students are weak and sleepy all the time.”

You can listen to the full report in the BBC player below

Save The Children has declared a Code Red emergency in Ethiopia. Its response includes providing food, water and medicine to affected families; treating child malnutrition and intervening to save crops and livestock.

But education is also key in its response. In a statement, it said: “Our focus is to increase access to education for all ages, by first ensuring all school children and teachers have access to water for drinking and essential hygiene; improving school and district management to ensure teachers are in place and teaching, and increasing community engagement to ensure children are protected and children are learning.”

Watch a Save The Children video report

The charity warned this week that emergency food aid will run out in April unless donors provide an extra $245 million by the end of February.

More than 400,000 Ethiopian children under five are predicted to suffer from severe malnutrition this year and a further 1.7 million under-fives, pregnant women and breast-feeding mothers will need treatment for moderate malnutrition.

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