With famine looming over the Horn, Ethiopia tasked to feed 5.6 million

File photo: Zahara Ali, 9, cooks breakfast in a rural village in Dubti Woreda, Afar Region, Ethiopia (Credit: UNICEF/Bindra)

5.6 million Ethiopians are in need of emergency food aid as the country is once again affected by the drought hitting East Africa. But external resources are difficult to come by with so many crises around the world, Ethiopian officials say.

Ethiopia is still reeling the effects of 2016’s devastating drought exacerbated by El Nino – a warming of sea surface temperature in the Pacific Ocean – that forced 18 million people to rely on emergency assistance worth of 1.7 billion US dollars.

A strong aid response to last year’s drought helped the country avoid famine but now rains have failed for a second consecutive year, eroding the already fragile livelihoods of pastoralists and semi-pastoralists in the southeastern and eastern lowlands of the country.

In January the government, together with its humanitarian partners including the UN and donors, released the Humanitarian Requirements Document announcing that it needs 922 US dollars for food and health assistance as well as for livestock support.

But obtaining the necessary funding has proven difficult amid a race for external resources, concedes Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn in his bi-annual report presented to the parliament in March.

Public Relations Head at the National Disaster Risk Management Commission Debebe Zewdie argues that with the ongoing crisis in the Middle East and drought in other parts of Africa, Ethiopia is in a difficult position to vie for international aid.

“But we don’t simply sit and wait for aid to arrive,” he says. “The government has allocated 47 million US dollars. And we have done the first round of aid distribution which includes 15 kg of wheat, 1.5 kg of cereals, oil and nutrients.” He adds that the aid effort also includes animal feed and a second round of distribution will commence soon.

In order to address the need, an aggregate of 920,000 metric tons of food that includes 745 metric tons of grains, 74,400 metric tons of pulses, 22,320 metric tons of edible oil and 78,150 metric tons of supplementary foods is required, according to Idris Hussen, the commission’s director of logistics and supplies.

The impact of last year’s drought aggravates the risk, says an FAO report as some families are still repaying loans while others have not managed to replace lost cattle.

West Hararghe region, Ethiopia, December 2015 (Credit: WFP/Stephanie Savariaud)

School feeding program

Part of the aid distribution is school feeding programs, according to Debebe. “We don’t want students to leave school,” he says. A total of over 1.7 million children are covered under the emergency school feeding program.

Education Minister Shiferaw Teklemariam told journalists in March that the government has allocated 8.7 million US dollars for the program. However, 30.5 million US dollars is required for the program to reach its goals fully, Shiferaw said, urging the international community and development partners to fill the funding gaps.

A report by UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs says more than 250,000 students have left school because of the drought.

The current drought is one of the worst to hit the Horn of Africa in decades. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, the region received only a quarter of the expected rainfall between October and December last year, leaving over 17 million people in Djibouti, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan and Uganda in crisis and emergency food insecurity levels.

The world’s last declared famine – prior to the ongoing famine in South Sudan’s Unity State – lasted from 2010 to 2012 in Somalia, resulting in 260,000 deaths. Now crisis looms again in Somalia where the newly elected government faces a daunting task of supplying aid to millions as rains over the past two years have been insufficient. In neighboring Kenya as well, the Red Cross says close to 3 million people are facing hunger.

At the release of the Humanitarian Requirements Document, head of the National Disaster Risk Management Commission underscored the importance of joining forces. “Last year, we were able to mount the biggest drought response operation in global history,” he said. “Today we need that partnership once again as we face a new drought.”