Ready or not - drought tests Ethiopia

Herding weary sheep up a dusty path, Hussein Boru knows he won’t find green pastures. He’s just looking for the minimum to keep his flock fed in drought-hit eastern Ethiopia.

Boru, a pastoralist from the Karrayyu Oromo ethnic group, has been forced to move his 30-strong extended family 60 kilometres from their old home. The drought, he says, has made their land unlivable, but the countryside they’re crossing is hardly any better. 

In broken plastic sandals and with just a bolt-action rifle to ward off hyenas, Boru is resolute: “The only things I depend on are God and my livestock,” he told IRIN.

Ethiopia today, one of the world’s fastest growing economies, has spent big on rural development and drought-resilience schemes, and says it has this year's situation under control. 

The scale and severity of the drought has been compared to the notorious famine year of 1984, and soil moisture in some parts are at 30-year lows, according to satellite data, but nationwide the picture is mixed.

The spring Belg rains were largely a failure, and weak summer Kiremt rains exacerbated the situation in this farming nation. In the affected areas, crops barely grew, the stunted shoots only suitable for livestock. 

The poor Kiremt rains have been linked to the Pacific Ocean warming phenomenon known as El Niño. For a country where agriculture accounts for more than 40 percent of GDP and ensures the livelihoods of more than 80 percent of the population, the situation is serious. 

More than eight million need aid

The UN says 8.2 million Ethiopians – out of a population of close to 100 million – are in need of food assistance, and projects that this number will balloon to 15 million next year. The government has bought a million metric tonnes of grain, but the supply is only expected to last the next few months.  

Ethiopia is expected to be hit hard by global warming, with big swings in rainfall variability from drought to flooding. The ability of farmers to adapt to a changing climate, and the government to identify a path to sustainable development, are key for the country’s future. 

On the outskirts of Welenchiti town, 120 kilometres from the capital Addis Ababa, along the country’s Chinese-built (and only) expressway, Workitu Tegenu, 30, says her farm’s teff and sorghum crops failed despite three planting attempts. Her family is relying on savings to feed their 10 children but she worries about the coming months. Workitu says she’s requested government aid but has not yet received any.

A few kilometres away, Habebe Badada’s farm lies in the shadow of the nearly completed Addis Ababa-Djibouti railway, close to the old, discontinued line.

Habebe’s crops also failed entirely. He plans to make it through to next year’s harvest with the minuscule wage he receives guarding, part-time, the old tracks that cut across his barren fields. 

The 50-year-old can’t remember a worse drought. “Even the 1984 drought was better,” he said. 

Fighting the famine image

The 1984 famine that prompted Bob Geldof’s Live Aid appeal unfolded under the Marxist-Leninist military junta, the Derg. Civil war exacerbated the disaster, with the Derg battling secessionist rebellion in some of the drought-affected areas.

Ethiopians have been trying to shake off the famine image ever since, which helps explain the government’s control of this crisis’ narrative.

In fact, not one of the top independent aid officials IRIN spoke to would go on the record, agreeing to speak only on condition of anonymity. The politics of the drought are that sensitive.

While there was unanimous agreement among those interviewed that the authorities are working hard to avert disaster, not all agree the crisis is “under control” as claimed by government spokesman and communications minister Getachew Reda at a recent press conference. 

Paying the bills

One point of contention is how the severity of the crisis is being communicated. “There is no one that we know of that has lost their life as a result of the drought-induced crisis,” said Getachew.

But a top foreign aid official says while no one is starving to death, about 200,000 children die each year from preventable diseases linked to malnutrition, and the drought will make matters worse.

How the disaster response will be paid for is another cause for concern, warns the head of one international NGO.

“The country is running out of foreign reserves… if there’s no cash to import grain what are they going to do?” he said.

In October, a figure of $596 million was set to cover the costs of the drought response until the end of the year.

The government has contributed $192 million while the international community pledged $163 million, leaving a significant funding gap the government insists it and donors will meet.

“No, we’re not shelving any project in this country to address this challenge because it’s still within our capacity to address this challenge,” said Getachew, while not ruling out future policy changes should the situation deteriorate. 

Points for trying

The man spearheading the government’s drought response, State Minister for Agriculture Mitiku Kassa, said in a phone interview that it’s not the government’s financial position that worries him.

"You can build resilience, but when conditions are bad enough, so severe – and we’re seeing the perfect storm – these resilience systems are overawed"

“The international community is not in a position to respond to our crisis,” he said, citing crises like Syria for putting a heavy burden on global humanitarian coffers.

Another NGO head says that while the situation is bad now it will be worse next year during the long wait until the next harvest.

“The best-case scenario will involve hundreds of thousands of metric tonnes more [grain] than what is in the pipeline… if not a gap of millions for what is needed,” he said.

Despite their concerns, all the aid officials IRIN spoke to gave the government credit for trying to head off the disaster.

“I think the part of the government responsible, the DRMFSS [Disaster Risk Management and Food Security Sector] has been remarkably strong and effective,” one said. 

Another government initiative credited with strengthening the country’s drought-resilience is the Productive Safety Net Project; “the largest safety net programme in Africa,” according to Minister Mitiku.

The PSNP provides cash or food to between six and eight million chronically food insecure Ethiopians for six months each year. In exchange, this army of workers has been deployed on a decade’s worth of drought-resilience projects from improving ground water access and irrigation to forestation, soil and water conservation work, to building schools and health centres.

“That program has been enormously successful in making some of the poorest Ethiopians less vulnerable,” said the head of a major international NGO.

What went wrong?

So with all this money and effort expended, why the crisis?

“You can build resilience, but when conditions are bad enough, so severe – and we’re seeing the perfect storm – these resilience systems are overawed. 

“But it would be a lot worse if that work hadn’t been done… there’s no absolute resilience,” said the NGO head.

While projects like the PSNP have helped, a lack of land rights are holding back poor farmers, according to another top aid official.

“[Ethiopia’s] land policy is very strict. Land can’t be bought, sold or transferred. So no land can be consolidated,” he said.

“What [the government] haven’t dealt with are the most vulnerable of the population. They’re on tiny, fractured plots of land and can’t make a go of it.

“Unless they get consolidated, sustainable farms, they’ll never be able to support themselves and prosper. There are still millions who can’t support themselves in a good year and then they fall off a cliff in a bad year,” he said.

History and science both tell of more bad years to come. Ethiopia’s National Meteorology Agency warns climate change will only exacerbate future El Niño effects.

A fact not lost on Mitiku: “We know [El Niño] will come more and more in coming years… It shows we have to strengthen our economic development.”

He added: “The government has not left everything to the donors. It’s taken the lead and allocated the lion’s share of the budget to combat the adverse effects of El Niño.”

That said, the government admits it can’t face the problem alone. “Even when you’re capable of addressing your problems you need friends,” noted Getachew.

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