A desperate and largely unknown humanitarian crisis is deteriorating in the Lake Chad Basin region of West Africa, forcing millions of people to flee their homes and leaving millions more in need of humanitarian assistance. Oxfam is providing life-saving support but help is urgently needed to prevent the crisis turning into a catastrophe.
It’s an amazing sight. Several thousand people of all ages have gathered on a hilltop in Oromia, central Ethiopia, many having walked miles to get here. This climate hearing in Oromia is one of many events being held across the world in the run up to December’s conference in Cancun. The climate hearings and tribunals aim to give ordinary people the chance to tell how their lives are being affected by climate change.
With the morning sun quickly heating up, children climb trees to get a better view of women like Lekea Borena, one of the speakers in the middle of the huge crowd.
Lekea lives with her husband and nine children in the nearby village of Tedeccha. They’ve been farming since they were teenagers, just like their parents and grandparents before them.
For decades the same small plot of land has provided them with enough food to eat, and plenty left over to sell in the market. Not anymore.
Standing in her field, Lekea explains why “There is not enough rain.”
“I remember misty mornings, with the sky full of clouds. Even ten years ago there would be regular rainfall six months of the year. This year we had only two and a half. We’ve had to reduce what we grow. No more peppers or vegetables – now it’s just the basics like corn and sorghum.”
Even for these staple crops, they harvest only a quarter of the amount they used to. “It’s nowhere near enough,” she says.
Around three quarters of adults in Oromia rely on farming to make a living. At the hearing hundreds of men and women have similar stories of a gradually changing climate and unpredictable rainy seasons.
After seeing so many of their crops die, Lekea’s family has tried to adapt to the changes in the weather by planting varieties of seeds that need much less water.
But this has not always been a success – the Grass Peas that she now grows instead of normal peas help to feed the children, but can potentially damage bones or even cause paralysis if they eat too many of them.
“It’s a big worry for me,” she says. “But the alternative is for us to go hungry.”
Lekea is due to address the crowd at the hearing on climate change and she’s nervous and excited. It’s the first time she’s spoken to such a big audience. “I want to tell them that farmers here can thrive if we have support. We don’t want to rely on aid, but we need governments to help us have access to water, to make up for the lack of rain.”
At the hearing there are different opinions on what has caused the change in rainfall. Lekea blames deforestation – “There used to be big forests here but people cut them down to get charcoal to sell in the markets.”
Others say Oromia is part of the global picture and that farmers here are paying the price for the industrialized world’s carbon emissions. Everyone agrees that the problem is getting worse and threatening their future.
As government officials sit and listen to the speakers, what does Lekea hope the hearing will achieve? “Water is the most important thing. Farmers here can thrive if we have support. We don’t want to rely on aid, but we need governments to help us have access to water.”
All photos: Aubrey Wade / Oxfam.