Late and erratic mid-February to May (`Belg') rains could significantly reduce crop yields in central and southern Ethiopia and adversely affect food security, warn officials.
"There is concern about the food security situation in `Belg’-producing areas,” Judith Schuler, Ethiopia's spokesperson for the World Food Programme (WFP), told IRIN. "Field reports, as well as remote sensing, confirm that the `Belg’ rains up to now are far below normal."
She said there has been limited land preparation for, and planting of, sweet potatoes in northeastern parts of the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and People's Region (SNNPR).
"Sweet potatoes are the major transitional crops consumed mainly among poorer households until the `Belg’ harvest begins in June," according to the US Agency for International Development’s Famine Early Warning Systems Network.
In the Amhara (central highlands) region, for example, only 3 percent of planned cropland had been planted as of 16 March, according to an update by the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. `Belg’ crops there, and in eastern Oromia and Tigray regions, are normally planted by the end of February.
`Belg’ production accounts for 5-30 percent of annual food production in the northern `Belg’ cropping areas, and 30-60 percent, or more, of production in southern `Belg’ cropping areas.
"We don’t think the situation will improve any time soon and the rainfall might not come, particularly in southern and major ` Belg’ producing areas," Diriba Koricha, director of the Forecast and Early Warning Department at the Ethiopian Meteorology Agency, told IRIN.
Almaz Demisse, a senior Ministry of Agriculture official, urged farmers to plant crops that have long cycle yields such as maize and sorghum.
Expected low yields are contributing to an increase in cereal prices; inflation is already running at 36.3 percent. "Food prices are showing an unseasonable increase and are higher than the average of the last five years," said WFP's Schuler.
"We are closely monitoring the situation since mid-February and jointly with the government we will do some rapid food security assessments in the coming weeks in SNNPR and possibly also in Amhara."
Meanwhile, the government is planning ahead. "We are preparing to provide seedlings for farmers that want to replace what they already planted,” and “allocating enough food in every incidence command post located in [the] most affected areas," Aklog Nigatu, spokesperson of Ethiopia's Disaster Risk Management and Food Security Sector office, told IRIN.