By Tija Danzig

The plane landed with a thud onto the dirt runway. I was told that the airport has only been here for a few years and was built in response to the growing humanitarian need in the region. The sighs of relief that echoed from across the airplane when we touched ground was evidence that this trip was new to most.

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The air was hot and heavy, almost stifling, as our team exited the airplane. I was immediately struck by the rocky ground and the great expanse of nothingness. I felt a sense of calm urgency and deep need. We finally made it to Afar, in the northern part of Ethiopia.

For months prior, I had been tracking the drought that was overcoming Ethiopia. Together with my unit in Washington, D.C., we had weekly meetings held over choppy Skype connections with our team in Addis Ababa to discuss the situation on the ground and determine next steps. How could we help? Who is doing what? Where is the greatest need? We asked these key questions and more as we assembled and deployed an assessment team, comprised of staff from our international office and Ethiopia office, as well as experts in water, sanitation and hygiene; health; and livestock. People were suffering and we needed to help.

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Ethiopia’s drought is a result of two successive failed rainy seasons and has produced the worst food crisis in the country in 30 years. With no crops or rangeland to feed either themselves or their cattle, as many as 18 million people are at risk of hunger and disease.

In Afar, 90 percent of the population are pastoralist, meaning their lives and livelihoods are tied up completely in their animals, both in terms of selling or trading livestock produce (milk, for example) to get grains to feed their families or through the meat itself. As these animals started to die, so did the potential for these communities. This loss alone was catastrophic. However, compounded with a 50-90 percent drop in crop production in the region, skyrocketing malnutrition rates, and disease, Ethiopia was in a state of emergency.

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Photo by: Julia Montijo, PCI Director, Operations

Over the course of a month, our team designed a project aimed to address some of the key issues affecting four of the most impacted “woredas”, or districts, in Afar and submitted a proposal to partner with USAID’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance on a $1.5 million 12-month project. The project, referred to as the Ethiopia Emergency Drought Response and Rehabilitation (ENDURE) Project has four components: (i) provision of nutrient-rich supplemental feed for livestock to improve their health and restore body condition; (ii) reinforcing the capacity of local partners to provide veterinary assistance to livestock; (iii) increasing access to clean water for human and animal consumption through repair of existing water infrastructure and water treatment; and (iv) reinforcing water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) practices in order to prevent diseases common to drought, such as cholera. Within a few weeks, we heard that we received the award and could launch our response project.

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As a child, I believed humanitarian workers were like superheroes. They swept in to help people in need just the same as Batman and Robin did. I had no idea at that time what international development was or how these “heroes” did what they did, but I remember watching them on the news with my parents and I remember feeling proud of them. Even back then, that is what I wanted to be like– to be someone who came to the rescue when people needed it most. And, of course, I wanted my very own cape too. With the launch of this project, my backpack became my cape and it was filled with resources and documents and checklists to ensure we started everything off right. People across Ethiopia were in need and I felt like part of the Justice League.

The severity of the drought was immediately evident to our team, who saw trucks of jerry-cans being hauled off to be filled and returned to communities devoid of water. I was told that this wasn’t the worst of it and to prepare myself for when we made it to Afar. But this visual exposé into the reality fueled me during the long hours spent reviewing the project design and preparing for the project orientation and meetings with new staff and our partners.

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The team, though, was poised and ready, having been through this before. They are professionals – smart and capable and they were ready to use their expertise as veterinarians, water engineers, and logisticians, and more to help. They are the true superheroes. And they were ready to respond.

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In implementing this response, PCI was able to enhance its team through a partnership with Engineers Without Borders (EWB) USA. For the launch, EWB-USA deployed skilled and motivated staff to assess and rehabilitate water points in order to better respond quickly and efficiently and restore water to communities in need. The EWB-USA team came with experience responding to disasters and restoring water services in difficult conditions and even in Ethiopia. They quickly became integral members of PCI Ethiopia and of the communities they entered.

In fact, in the initial days of the water assessment phase, the EWB-USA team, along with PCI’s Water Engineer and community and government counterparts, were able to make repairs to water points that brought water back to hundreds of families. And, not only were they able to make these repairs, but they were also able to train community members on maintenance in order to help prevent future water loss from a supply that should otherwise produce.

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Photo by: Larry Bentley, EWB-USA

[The repair] really energized the team. When the generator started, people came running from all directions to get water. They were so excited and thankful.” – Mike Paddock, EWB-USA

This sort of repair, training and celebration happened over and over again throughout the weeks that followed. These seemingly small victories – getting a broken generator or water pump functioning again – were life-changing to hundreds of families and their livestock who had been going without for so long. And this was still the assessment phase.

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Photo by: Larry Bentley, EWB-USA

As the project embarks on its first full month in action, I am optimistic about the impact we can make. There has already been great progress made and lives helped and many of the activities are still yet to begin. As we move into the months ahead, our team is ready to take on the evolving challenges with drought and climate change in order to improve the lives and livelihoods of those in our project areas. Each victory inspires the team to work harder and to set our sights on growing the project and reaching even more people.

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Like so many of my colleagues, the desire to give back is what drives us and what inspires us to keep going. I know now that we don’t get a cape and that it isn’t always glamorous but the reality is so much greater. The opportunity to help others in their time of need far outweighs what my childhood imagination could comprehend and the need is much larger than any one person can handle. For Ethiopia, the time to help is now. For my team, we will ENDURE.

Today, on World Humanitarian Day, let’s take action together for a safer and more humane world for the communities affected by crisis.

  • Use the #sharehumanity hashtag on social media to advocate for humanity and the more than 130 million people affected by crisis.
  • Donate to PCI and support our ongoing efforts to help people affected by disasters and complex emergencies.

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Photos and Story By: Tija Danzig, Associate Technical Advisor, Humanitarian Assistance and Disaster Risk Reduction