First Person Blog

Voices, video, and photos from Oxfam's fight against poverty

For some, climate change means hunger–now

Posted by
Medhin Reda depends on rain to water her fields of teff and corn. Erratic weather has a profound impact on the well-being of her family. Photo by Eva-Lotta Jansson/Oxfam America

Climate talks in Copenhagen are just a few weeks away. Here at my desk in Boston, I’m hearing a growing urgency in the pitches from campaigners who have been working long and hard to get the United States and the European Union to own up to their responsibility for the future that is facing us all.

But what I hear louder, still, are the voices of the people I met in Ethiopia in August for whom changing weather patterns and increased cycles of drought mean failed crops, skipped meals, and deeper poverty.

For them, climate change isn’t just an abstraction discussed in terms of cap-and-trade policies in global halls of power. It’s far less complicated than that—and frightening in its simplicity.

It’s about hunger.

And survival.

“I don’t know the reasons, but I know the climate is changing,” said Medhin Reda, a 45-year-old farmer eking a living for her family from two rain-fed fields in northern Ethiopia. “I don’t really remember drought seasons as a child,” added Reda.  “The rain was good.”

And that meant families got plenty of milk from their cows and goats and farmers harvested crops from their fields. That’s what Boru Gelma, a 65-yearold herder and farmer living near the Kenyan border in southern Ethiopia, remembers from his childhood.

“Now, we get nothing,” he said. “Many people don’t have enough food to eat.”

“Before,” said Damise Jilo, 39, “we were pastoralists and gradually we lost our livestock and started farming and started practicing farming and animal breeding side by side. But the crops started to fail, too.”

East Africa—including Ethiopia–is now in the grip of a prolonged drought that has left 23 million people facing life-threatening shortages of food and water. With climate change, the challenges of drought will only grow more acute. And that’s why Ethiopians are adding their voices to a steadily growing chorus for action. Among them is the Forum for Environment, an Addis Ababa-based group deeply concerned about Ethiopia’s environment. The group has launched a petition calling on President Obama to take the lead in pushing for a fair climate deal in Copenhagen.

All voices are needed now.

Share this story:

Join the conversation

  1.'SAAW International

    In the run up to the Copenhagen climate change conference, it is vital the following information be disseminated to the public as well as to our political leaders.

    A widely cited 2006 report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, Livestock’s Long Shadow, estimates that 18 percent of annual worldwide greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are attributable to livestock….however recent analysis by Goodland and Anhang co-authors of “Livestock and Climate Change” in the latest issue of World Watch magazine found that livestock and their byproducts actually account for at least 32.6 billion tons of carbon dioxide per year, or 51 percent of annual worldwide GHG emissions!

    The main sources of GHGs from animal agriculture are: (1) Deforestation of the rainforests to grow feed for livestock. (2) Methane from manure waste. – Methane is 72 times more potent as a global warming gas than CO2 (3) Refrigeration and transport of meat around the world. (4) Raising, processing and slaughtering of the animal.

    Meat production also uses a massive amount of water and other resources which would be better used to feed the world’s hungry and provide water to those in need.

    Based on their research, Goodland and Anhang conclude that replacing livestock products with soy-based and other alternatives would be the best strategy for reversing climate change. They say “This approach would have far more rapid effects on GHG emissions and their atmospheric concentrations-and thus on the rate the climate is warming-than actions to replace fossil fuels with renewable energy.”

    The fact is that we are being informed of the dangerous path we are on by depending greatly on animal flesh for human consumption. We still have the opportunity to make the most effective steps in saving ourselves and this planet. By simply choosing a plant based diet we can reduce our carbon foot print by a huge amount.

    We are gambling with our lives and with those of our future generations to come. It’s madness to know we are fully aware of the possible consequences but yet are failing to act.

    Promoting a plant based diet to the public is would be the most effective way to curb deforestation, we hope this will be adopted as a significant measure to save the rainforests and protect the delicate ecology.

    Thank you for your consideration.

  2. Coco McCabe


    Thanks for your comment. We understand that livestock is part of the problem in terms of global greenhouse gas emissions. As an organization, we are working to push for a dramatic reduction of those emissions–reductions on the order of 25 percent to 40 percent by 2020. Clearly, the agricultural sector will have to contribute to a portion of such reductions. While livestock does play a major role in greenhouse gas emissions, large-scale agribusiness is responsible for most of them. The emissions generated from the activities of small-scale farmers, who Oxfam works for every day, do not play a significant role in global greenhouse gas emissions.


    There seems to be a disconnect between the two comments made so far, as the first one focuses on the impacts of livestock at a sectoral level, while the second one distinguishes between large-scale and small-scale livestock.

    Something to consider is that both operators and their livestock in small-scale as well as large-scale systems are already among the world’s economic activities most greatly impacted by climate change, and may well continue to be so. As a result, many operators both small and large may be forced to seek alternate livelihoods, whether they would want to or not. This will be painful, and policymakers can ease the pain by ensuring retraining for workers and fair payments to operators for animals and land.

    One incentive for policymakers to provide support for alternate livelihoods across the livestock sector is that a significant reduction in emissions will result from every single animal reduced from today’s livestock population. In fact, an extra measure of fairness will exist in providing support for small operators to find alternate livelihoods — because unfortunately, each head of livestock raised on a small scale tends to be responsible for more emissions than an intensively-raised head of livestock. This is because small-scale livestock are more likely to be extensively raised; and the average extensively-raised head of livestock is responsible for a higher level of methane emissions from its internal physiological acvitity as well as carbon dioxide emissions from deforestation than is its intensively raised peer.

  4.'Wendy Martin

    Irrigate, irrigate, irrigate. Since the climate is changing, and the weather has proven to be erratic, the smart thing to do would be to build irrigation systems. Otherwise these people will have to move to somewhere else where it rains naturally.

    Asking Obama to do something is like waiting for the moon, the poor in Africa always seem to get relegated to the bottom of the barrel, the governments there take money and then do nothing for the people, even buying military machinery to kill them.

    The world needs to take better notice when these inequalities and injustices happen, document it better, and hold these corrupt governments to task for their actions.

    I’m tired of living in a do-nothing world, when even the aid organizations become targets from criminals and rebels in the bush. Such a shame that even God-fearing men and women have to fear for their lives while trying to help the poor downtrodden masses.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *