Praying for rain: Sustainable strategies deliver water, hope to East Africa

How one man's faith is helping end famine with help from LDS Church

Published: Saturday, April 14 2012 1:00 p.m. MDT

When he was a boy the elders of his village named the droughts — drought X, or drought Y — because they came once every 20 years, searing themselves so deeply into memory that a simple letter sufficed to mark their passage. But now the droughts come so often they don't give them names.

Issaq doesn't read the newspapers in the capital that chronicle the deforestation of Ethiopia and he has certainly never heard of global warming. He has opinions on none of these things, or the luxury of debating them.

He is a goat herder, his frame lean and hard, his happy eyes dark and penetrating. Like his ancestors, his days are governed by the rise and fall of the sun. For him the cause of the drought is simple:

God either makes it rain, or he does not.

But he can't help but worry. There are salt mines in this region, and when the rivers get low, the water gets salty too. It makes the children of the village sick. His goats are also getting sick, and because there isn't enough water to plant corn, his livestock represent everything — milk for his children, meat for his family, currency to trade for rope or clothing in the dusty outposts along the river.

To make matters worse, the refugees fleeing Somalia are putting added pressure on villages like his. They gather the same firewood, drink from the same rivers, and before long, they will want to graze the same pasture.

He has no time to worry about the geopolitical forces pushing their migration--the civil wars that have rocked Somalia since its government collapsed in 1991, the reign of Al Shabab, which expelled all Western aid organizations at the start of the drought. His heart breaks for the refugees because they are his people. They speak the same language, belong to the same religion and share the same culture. But he wonders how long this can last.

Hundreds of people cross every day into the Dolo region, filling sprawling refugee camps of white tents that spread across the land like small cities. The people in them have no intention of leaving, at least not anytime soon, and he can't blame them.

Sometimes he wonders if he should move his village. The elders have made that choice before but in the long and treacherous trek for water, they may lose half their animals. Schools will close. And it will take a generation to get back what has been lost.

And so he too prays to God, hoping someone will come to help.

Help to the forgotten

When Abdulahi was eight years old, another drought hit Ethiopia. For many in the United States, it was the first time they had heard of Ethiopia, or had seen the effects of famine. The crisis had its own soundtrack — We Are the World — with an attendant telethon that changed forever the way the international community responds to famine and other disasters in forgotten corners of the globe.

Today, philanthropy is a multi-billion dollar industry, propped up by the world's richest governments and celebrities, and in the fall of 2011 its representatives gather along the border of Somalia like an invading force.

They come to Dolo Ado, a ramshackle city of tin shacks and donkey carts, and as Abdulahi walks along the dusty streets, he can see their flags fluttering high above cement walled compounds: Oxfam, UNICEF, the Norwegian Refugee Council, Save the Children. There must be 20 of the world's biggest and most well respected Non-Governmental Organizations here, and almost all of them are working in the camps.

Largely forgotten are the villages along the border. That's why Abdulahi is here.

He works for International Relief and Development, or IRD, which has its own small and humble compound on the outskirts of town. Its work is quiet and devoid of any flash — -no flags, no bumper stickers — and goes mostly unnoticed because it affects far fewer people.

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