Poor rains prompt calls for more food assistance

Aid agencies are calling for more food assistance for areas in southern and northeastern Ethiopia where erratic rains have adversely affected the mid-February to May `Belg’ crop.

“We have a very significant shortage of food in much of [the] `Belg’ season dependent areas of the country particularly in SNNPR, [Southern Nations, Nationalities and People's Region]” Mike McDonagh, head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Ethiopia, told IRIN.

Other affected areas include parts of the northeast in the Amhara, Oromia and Tigray regions.

The `Belg’ harvest, which accounts for up to 40 percent of annual food production in some areas, is expected to reduce in 2012 due to the late onset and below-average performance of the mid-February to May rains, which were 2-8 weeks late.

“The situation is of concern and is being monitored closely,” said Judith Schuler, spokesperson of the UN World Food Programme (WFP) in Ethiopia, adding that the number of food-insecure people could increase.

At present, an estimated 3.2 million people are food insecure in Ethiopia, down from a peak of 4.5 million during the 2011 Horn of Africa drought. Revised figures are expected in mid-July.

WFP requires US$183 million by the end of 2012, to support 2.5 million of the 3.2 million people in need of emergency food assistance.

The situation in SNNPR, which borders Kenya and South Sudan, is of particular concern.

The `Belg’ crop harvest there accounts for 35-40 percent of production, with root crops, mainly sweet potatoes, contributing 50 percent of the harvest in some districts. But the extended dry period had resulted in an almost total failure of the crop - and others such as haricot beans, potatoes and maize, which were expected to fill the food gap between March and June - according to the government’s latest (May) Early Warning and Response analysis.

Aid agencies say a lack of sufficient recovery time after the 2011 drought could aggravate the situation for vulnerable households whose assets and other coping mechanisms were depleted.

Malnutrition rising

Already, the number of malnourished people is rising, said OCHA’s McDonagh.

According to OCHA, close to 90,000 children, pregnant women and nursing mothers in SNNPR alone are moderately malnourished at present, and the number is increasing.

“March was worse than February, April was worse than March and we expect May to be worse than April,” said McDonagh. “So it gets worse for a period and then maybe around July and August... it could reduce again.”

“We need general rations, what we call relief food. We need more supplementary food. We need therapeutic foods and we need also inputs such as seeds.” 

The number of severely malnourished children in therapeutic feeding programmes is increasing, with earlier and greater increases than in 2011, according to the Agriculture Ministry’s Emergency Nutrition Coordination Unit.

For example, from January to February, admissions to the programmes increased by 15.3 percent and went up a further 27 percent from February to March. The March to April figures are not available.

According to Mitiku Kassa, Ethiopia’s minister of agriculture, the agriculture and health ministries are monitoring the food insecurity situation.

“Irregularity in rainfall seasons resulting [in] problems of such [a] kind is not a new thing to us,” Mitiku said. “We faced it last year and a year before that and we are managing it so far… The country has enough resources and mechanisms in place to deal with it this time, though.”


Also see: ETHIOPIA: Late rains threaten food security