Photograph: William Campbell/Sygma/Corbis

Ethiopia Heading for Worst Drought in Decades

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Ethiopia drought
The number of people who require food assistance in Ethiopia could reach to 15 million – more than in Syria, if there is no timely response.

By Ruadhán Mac Cormaic | for The Irish Times,

Ethiopia is facing its worst drought in decades, with more than eight million people already in need of food assistance as a result of weather conditions that are set to worsen, the aid agency Goal has warned.

The failure of two consecutive rainy seasons, including the summer rain that normally feeds 80-85 per cent of the country but was exceptionally weak this year, has devastated livelihoods and greatly increased malnutrition rates in six Ethiopian regions.

The United Nations has said the level of acute need has already exceeded levels seen in the Horn of Africa drought of 2011, which led to a famine that claimed an estimated 200,000 lives in neighboring Somalia, and the drought is projected to become more severe next year.

“The concern is that if there is not a timely response the situation will deteriorate,” said John Rynne, Goal’s director in Ethiopia.

More than 80 per cent of Ethiopia’s population works in agriculture, leaving the country particularly vulnerable to drought and climate change. The current crisis is linked to the strength of this year’s El Niño, a water-warming weather phenomenon in the Pacific Ocean, which has led to sharply reduced rainfall levels across densely populated swathes of the country.

The Ethiopian government announced this month that about 8.2 million people were in need of food assistance, up from an estimated 4.55 million in August. A further 7.5 million are receiving cash and food under the Productive Safety Net Programe, a scheme that helps chronically poor rural households survive during the lean summer season.

The effects of the drought could be widely seen, Rynne said. Some schools and health facilities had closed due to lack of water and school attendance rates had fallen because children were required to help move livestock to pasture and distant water.

“Another issue would be forced migration. The male member of the household might go to an urban area to find daily work on building sites, leaving the wife and young children at home in quite a vulnerable situation,” he said. “What we see is that people’s coping mechanisms regularly involve the selling of vital assets – agricultural tools, seeds and so on. So it has a very negative impact.”

Rising food prices

The situation was compounded by rising food prices, with the market price of maize in some parts of the country having increased by up to 26 per cent this year, Rynne said. Goal has 800 staff in more than 30 locations in Ethiopia and aims to step up its own operation on the ground in the coming weeks.

In a bleak projection of Ethiopia’s needs, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said 15 million people would require food assistance – more than in Syria.

It estimated there would be 350,000 cases of severe acute malnutrition requiring life-saving therapeutic treatment, and 450,000 livestock deaths, which would destroy livelihoods and contribute to food insecurity. The office also estimated that about 1.8 million Ethiopians would be without drinkable water for extended periods.

Food insecurity is a sensitive issue in Ethiopia, which was hit by famine in the mid-1980s after extreme drought. Since then, early-warning systems and crisis management procedures have been put in place by the Ethiopian government, the UN and humanitarian groups.

Funds diverted

The government has diverted almost $200 million from infrastructure projects towards immediate procurement of food supplies since July and has issued an appeal to international donors for funds. The OCHA, which made its own appeal to donors, said in a report this week at least $451 million would be required to mitigate the effect of El Niño in Ethiopia.

“Essentially, everything is ready on the ground here, but we are missing the substantial resources in order to ameliorate the current crisis,” Rynne said.