Ethiopia feeling the impact of successive serious droughts

With a recent increase in the number of people needing emergency food assistance, the impact of Ethiopia’s drought is worsening. And that comes only around a year after one of the country’s most severe dry spells in decades.

At the end of April, the National Disaster Risk Management Commission reported the number of people in need of immediate food assistance had reached 7.7 million, an increase by 2.1 million from the commission’s estimate at the beginning of the year. At that time, $948 million dollars was requested to help the affected people — who are mostly in the south and east of the country — under half of which has been contributed.

In the worst hit Somali regional state, an estimated 785,000 people are suffering from hunger, malnutrition and water shortages. After visiting the area in late February, UN Central Emergency Response Fund’s Stephen O’Brien stressed the importance of prompt action. “Millions of people’s lives, livelihoods and wellbeing depend on continued donor support,” he said. “Time lost means lives lost.”

Exacerbating the problem, year-on-year food inflation has reached 12.6 per cent, the highest since January 2016, according to Ethiopia’s Central Statistical Agency, with major staples such as teff, maize, wheat, sorghum and barley exhibiting increases. The government had previously pledged to keep the inflation rate in the single-digit range.

Although central bank governor Teklewold Atnafu told lawmakers in April that prices were under control, economic research firm Business Monitor International expects soaring inflation in coming months because of reduced agricultural output due to the lack of rain. However, the statistics agency says that despite the drought an increase in production has been registered in the last main Meher season (June to September 2016) harvesting season with close to 290.4 million quintals of crops yielded. That means production showed an 8.8 percent increase from last year, which is likely to be roughly in line with Ethiopia’s consistently high official economic growth figures.

Food inflation is up in spite of official reports of increased food production.

An assessment of the secondary Belg season (roughly, February to April) will be used as a basis for a revised Humanitarian Requirements Document that is expected to be released in July. Planners hope that early publication of the document, capturing the impact of the Belg rains, will help mobilize donations to prevent a projected break in the delivery of food aid.

In 2015 and 2016, Ethiopia experienced its worst drought in half a century in which 10.2 million people needed emergency aid, while 7.9 million people were chronically food insecure and dependent on an ongoing relief program. Still reeling from the effect of that devastating episode, which was induced by El Niño, an ocean-warming climatic phenomena with global impact on weather patterns, swathes of the country have experienced rain failure again.

According to the World Bank, it often takes as many as four years for households to recover from a drought because of asset depletion. The non-governmental organization Save the Children says the previous crisis left more than half the nation’s pastoralists destitute due to loss of livestock. An April announcement of the UN’s World Meteorological Organization predicts that El Niño has a 50 to 60 per cent probability of returning this year.

 In 2015 and 2016, Ethiopia experienced its worst drought in half a century.

The ongoing Productive Safety Net Programme (PSNP) currently provides regular food or cash transfers for 8 million Ethiopians, half of whom live in currently drought-affected areas. During severe rain shortages, the program expands to include new beneficiaries, as well as increasing the period of support from five to seven months of the year. To deal with the extra burden, one of the main donors, the World Bank, approved an extra $100 million for the PNSP on May 2, the same amount it topped the program up with last year. The PSNP recipients, plus the 7.7 people in need of emergency support, amount to more than one-sixth of Ethiopia’s population.

The drought is also causing an increase in the number of internal refugees. According to the International Organization for Migration there are currently 696,000 displaced persons at 456 sites throughout Ethiopia. And, additionally, the country hosted 830,000 refugees from other countries as of March. Because neighboring South Sudan and Somalia are deeply impacted by the conflict and drought, respectively, an increase in the number of refugees is likely.

UN OCHA’s latest humanitarian funding update, from May 10, says there is a $507 million shortfall, of which $291m is needed for food aid. After avoiding catastrophe last year, donors praised Ethiopia’s government for diverting as much as $700 million to the relief operation. (The main sources were alleged to be cash allocated for road development and funds that had accrued in an oil stabilization fund). Mitiku Kassa, head of Ethiopia’s disaster commission, is now urging donors to step up their funding, while the government is again mobilizing all the resources it can. “We all must work hand in hand to tackle this problem,” he says.

But even if that occurs, while the country is still managing to avoid the dreaded famine classification, the impact of successive serious droughts on a fragile and resource-stretched nation is mounting.


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