MAKALE, Ethiopia — On the wind-swept outskirts of this ancient city, 1,400 men and women are building a dam over a barren ravine. Day after day, the workers dig their hands into the powdery soil, heap it onto long strips of cloth and ferry new layers to the top in a human assembly line.
There is no water in the ravine to dam, no hint of rain in the occasional puffy cloud overhead, no cattle to be watered, no plants to harvest or even irrigate, as far as one can see.
For Ethiopians, building an earthen dam in the midst of a drought is as much an article of faith as an investment in the future. But it's one of the small attempts being made here to turn back tomorrow, which most experts say holds more rapid ecological decay, more frequent droughts and even more severe famines.
Drought and famine once were cyclical phenomena in Ethiopia, occurring every decade or so. Now Ethiopia's northern highlands are deteriorating with alarming speed, and inexorable climatic changes are making large chunks of this dizzying landscape untillable. Today famine is endemic.
Ethiopia continues to fight, building dams, planting trees and moving people to more fertile ground. But the problems seem to dwarf the effort.
Even with good rainfall and bumper crops, Ethiopia cannot feed 2.5 million of its 45 million people. The highlands are worn out from too many years of farming and grazing and by farming methods that have not improved since the 10th Century. The population swells by 3,000 a day while the average income, at about 30 cents a day the lowest in the world, shrinks.
"Clearly, it's downhill all the way in terms of food security," said Michael Priestley, coordinator of the United Nations' relief effort in Ethiopia. "Just to create a food reserve and improve agricultural production, you're talking decades, not years."
Only 50 years ago, the land around the dam project in Tigre province was on the edge of a forest, with groves of orange and lemon trees nearby. Now it is scarred by erosion and perpetual drought, and the dam is at the foot of a denuded, flat-topped mountain.
"We can't know if it will rain," Kiros Gazhahang, a mother of six, said the other day as she paused on top of the dam here. "We are working to get food. Our aim is to have food for our families and also seed to replant for next year."
Kiros carries water in a clay container to the top of the dam, where it is sprinkled on top to help pack the dirt. The water is trucked to the site. Other women, with infants wrapped in cotton cloth on their backs, work in pairs, carrying soil on old relief-food bags stretched like a hammock between them.
Since the last famine, in 1984-85, 26 dams have been built by hand around here under a food-for-work program. Each worker receives about six pounds of grain a day. An additional 20 dams are planned or are under construction.
Gramashela Dam, a quarter-mile long and 40 feet high, will take about four months to build. It will never create a lake, but Agricultural Ministry officials say they hope it will save a little rainwater.
"We just want to protect the soil and have some water in the dry season for cattle and maybe some trees," said Fesseha Yitaya, the government official overseeing the project.
When the dam is finished, the workers will return to their villages, plant next year's crop--and again wait for rain.
'13 Months of Sunshine'
Ethiopia promises tourists "13 months of sunshine," a slogan that is painfully true today. The sun is shining more and more in the land of the 13-month Amharic calendar, and it worries everyone.
In 1984 and 1985, famine killed hundreds of thousands here. The rains returned in 1986, but only for a year. Less rain fell this year than in 1984, and drought has triggered another international effort to feed more than 6 million Ethiopians.
"The cycle of drought seems to have been drastically shortened," said Rick Machmer, the U.S. Agency for International Development director in Ethiopia. "If the rains didn't come this year, they might fail again next year and the year after that. We may be faced with a permanent situation of more drought than rain, which is a frightening prospect."
The most vulnerable area is the northern highlands, a dramatic landscape of jagged mountains and mile-deep canyons that seems uninhabitable. Ethiopians live and farm nearly every flat surface, from breathtaking mountaintops a few hundred feet across and 12,000 feet high to narrow crescents of silt circling the wind-carved rock below.
Only a Few Tools, Animals
These highlands cover only one-fifth of the country, but they are home to 88% of the population, people who are among the world's poorest and most isolated. Aside from a few tools and animals, they have no assets. Most live a day's walk or more from the nearest dirt road and many days' walk from the nearest town.