A few mornings ago, when a fire ripped through an electrical substation, the power blinked off in my community. Across town, everything came to a standstill. They even canceled school: “I had no way to feed 1,200 kids and we didn’t have enough bread for sandwiches,” the school superintendent was quoted as saying.
Six hours without power—how inconvenient. But that’s all it was. A hiccup, and nearly forgotten the next day.
But I wondered how we would all manage if the power went out at least twice a week, from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., as it has these past several months in neighborhoods across Ethiopia’s capital, Addis Ababa. Oxfam has a regional office there that’s been trying to help pastoralist communities across the country snared in an emergency. Drought has left them facing both hunger and thirst.
The Oxfam office is in a building with a generator that kicks in when the city’s juice switches off. But it can’t run around the clock—and sometimes, it doesn’t run at all.
“One day, the power went out, the generator broke down, and we were in the middle of responding to a drought emergency—no phones, no faxes, no computers,” said Doe-e Berhanu, Oxfam’s regional communications officer. And communications between the Addis office and a satellite bureau in the northern part of the country are often slow because there just isn’t enough electricity in that remote region to speed them up.
Late rain is the culprit, said Berhanu. Addis and other parts of the country depend on hydropower, and if the rains don’t come, the electricity doesn’t flow.
The equation is so simple, but the consequences are profound—and go beyond interruptions on the electrical grid. It’s one thing to live without Internet access, but quite another to turn on the tap and find not a drop dribbling out because of a severe water shortage.
That’s been happening in Addis. It was a problem last year, and water rationing in different neighborhoods continues, said Berhanu, who has perfected the art of sponge bathing. When the taps run dry, her father gathers up the family’s collection of jerricans—big plastic containers that hold about five gallons each—loads them into his pickup truck and drives around to find a neighborhood whose water supply hasn’t yet been shut off. There, at a kiosk set up next to an open pipe, he’ll get in line with everyone else and wait to fill the jugs. The longer the line grows, the higher the price of water climbs. Last year, Berhanu’s family went for two weeks straight without running water in their house and so far this year, they’ve gone without for four weeks.
That challenge pales, though, when you consider what people in southern Ethiopia were doing earlier this year to cope with the drought that gripped their region. One of Oxfam’s partners reported that women, some of them pregnant, were walking more than 18 miles from their villages to fetch water for their families. Laden with 20-liter (five-gallon) jugs, some of them miscarried, and others delivered their babies along the road.
I think about that morning when the power in my town went out and the news of the inconvenience made big local headlines. What in the world were we complaining about?