THREE decades ago, the world looked on in horror at images of dying famine victims in Ethiopia, as musicians led the giant global fundraising concert, Live Aid.
Today, Ethiopia’s northeastern Tigray region has changed, with ambitious irrigation projects turning arid land where as many as 400,000 people died of famine—some say as many as a million—into valuable farmland.
Tekie Hagos, 73, recalls the grim days of the 1984-85 famine.
“The government would come and pick up the bodies, piling them in cars to bury them,” he said, adding that hyenas would scavenge for forgotten human remains.
Today, the city market is full of goods, fruits, vegetables and livestock.
The clean and orderly regional capital of Mekelle reflects the progress made by the country, Africa’s second most-populous, which has experienced recent near-double-digit economic growth and huge infrastructure investment.
Malnutrition and children in ragged clothes have not disappeared, but “things have changed”, said Tekie. “We have enough,” he said. “You don’t see people dying of hunger anymore.”
Live Aid, held in simultaneous concerts in Britain and the United States on July 13, 1985, as well as other concerts worldwide, was watched by an estimated 1.9 billion people across 150 countries, according to its organisers.
Irish singer-songwriter Bob Geldof and Scottish musician Midge Ure led the efforts to raise millions of dollars in aid.
Ethiopia in the early 1980s was hit by extreme drought, but that spiralled into famine as the hardline Marxist government of Mengistu Haile Mariam battled rebels led by Meles Zenawi who went on to become the country’s leader after his rebel movement won victory in 1991.
Tigray was devastated, but has since made impressive changes. Aba Hawi, the mayor of the village of Abraha Atsbeha, 60 kilometres (40 miles) north of Mekelle, mobilised the people to build an extensive irrigation system.
Fifty tanks were built to hold rainwater—in recent years increasingly unpredictable, according to farmers—with the valuable stores then used to irrigate farmland during the dry season.
Lunch in Mekelle, Ethiopia - once the epicentre of famine, the region has made a remarkable turnaround (Photo/Flickr/ Rod Waddington).
“We built these so we can guarantee food security,” said Aba, as a dozen men and women sweated with picks and shovels to help construct a new irrigation ditch. “Those people who used to eat only once a day, now have three meals a day.”
The results are impressive: through irrigation, agricultural production in the village has quadrupled. Farmers harvest not one but three crops a year. Vegetation has reclaimed the landscape of sand and stones.
“All this greenery did not exist, the soil was dry and barren,” Aba said. “Everyone was trying to leave, but now we have built an economy that can withstand famine. Even with four or five rainfalls we can collect enough water and can keep away famine.”
For years, the simple village of Abraha Atsbeha struggled to get by and was deeply dependent on international food aid.
Today the village is self-sufficient, and the basic homes of mud and wood are slowly being replaced with stone houses. Now other villages in the region even send delegations to see the progress.
“We did not even have water to drink, and now fruit grows,” Aba told visiting farmers from the neighbouring Amhara region, taken by an aid agency to see and learn from the village’s success.
“Change comes from individuals, it is not enough just to have land. You need to change your methods,” Aba said, proudly showing off the lush apple orchard that grows in the garden of his house—along with mango, avocado, orange trees, and coffee bushes—something never seen before in these dryland areas.
Tigray today is at the forefront of Ethiopia’s efforts at agricultural transformation.
“Just 20 years ago, only a few hundred hectares were irrigated in the region,” said Kiros Bitew, senior official in the agriculture ministry. “Now we have 275,000 hectares (680,000 acres) of fully irrigated lands.”
The government in Ethiopia, currently rated by the World Bank as a low-income country, has set itself the goal of achieving the status of a middle income country by 2025.
This means a gross national income of $1,045 (946 euros) per resident per year and would see it join African countries including Cameroon, Kenya and Senegal.
“We are determined to eradicate poverty,” says Kiros, a former rebel fighter who in 1991 helped to overthrow the Mengistu regime that provoked the famine.
Ethiopia has developed an early warning system for identifying areas at risk of hunger, as well as building up sizeable grain reserves, currently standing at some 400,000 tons.
“When you looked for ‘Ethiopia’ in a dictionary, it would also always mention ‘famine’,” added Kiros. “Now that time is over.”