Ethiopia drought: How can we let this happen again?

by Zelalem

Ethiopia’s Tigray and Afar regions to the north have once again been hit by drought, one that is estimated to be the worst in 50 years – exceeding that of 1984, which contributed to the famine that killed more than 1 million Ethiopians.

The alarm has now been sounded – after an avoidable delay, according to some – and now the likes of the United Nations and Save the Children are swinging into action to acquisition funds for Ethiopia. And this time the argument for funds isn’t just to save lives but to ensure Ethiopia’s current developmental momentum – and its best chance of being able to handle such droughts – remains on track.

But how could this be happening again – little more than 30 years after a global humanitarian appeal that raised many millions of dollars, and saw foreign NGOs rush in establishing famine relief efforts, and a host of infrastructure projects designed to prevent such a disaster recurring.

Drought takes terrible toll in Ethiopia

Such incredulity, already voiced in some media, is understandable, with the response on the ground a confusing mix of a partial success story by the Ethiopian government, yet partial enough for imminent crisis, exacerbated by the reaction – or lack thereof – from the international community, to remain a distinct possibility.

Donor fatigue

Herein lies Ethiopia’s greatest challenge: donor fatigue, after 2015 proved a tumultuous humanitarian-crisis-riddled year.

The harsh economic truth this time round is Ethiopia is competing for international funds against the likes of war in Syria and Yemen, and a migrant crisis; and the cogs of the bureaucratic donor system aren’t renowned for turning quickly.

ALSO READ: Ethiopia drought ‘as bad for children as Syria’s war’

Initially, Ethiopia tried what many in the West complain that developing countries don’t do enough of: tackling the situation itself, employing a sophisticated food security network developed over decades since images of the 1984 famine came to stigmatise Ethiopia.

Ethiopia tried what many in the West complain that developing countries don’t do enough of: tackling the situation itself…


The Productive Safety Net Program (PSNP) is a welfare-for-work initiative enabling about 6 million people to work on public infrastructure projects in return for food or cash.

Furthermore, there’s a national food reserve and early warning systems throughout woredas, local administrative organisations.

Ethiopia’s efforts went as far as opening early a new railway line – the country’s only one – between Djibouti and Addis Ababa to transport food aid, and committing an unprecedented $192m to helping prevent deaths from starvation. The country’s ability and means for providing emergency relief have changed beyond recognition since 1984.

But these efforts hit a snag: between June and October in 2015 estimated numbers of those affected by the drought doubled to around 8.2 million.

Predicting this drought’s severity was beyond Ethiopia’s control; the ocean warming trend El Nino is causing unusually heavy rains in some parts of the world and drought elsewhere. Neighbouring Somalia has about 3 million people hit by crop failures and food shortages.

So, finally, Ethiopia’s government asked for help. But some within NGOs argue the government delayed unnecessarily while going it alone to maintain the narrative of Ethiopia’s great economic renaissance, achieving about 10 percent annual growth for the last decade.

Great economic renaissance

That rate has elevated Ethiopia to one of the fastest growing economies in the world, thereby radically improving the government’s cash flow to mitigate such a crisis.

Elder residents of Kobo, Ethiopia, speak of the cumulative effects of several bad rainy seasons that have made this the worst drought they can remember [AP]

But plenty is committed to projects like building the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam, Africa’s biggest – costing about $5bn – to generate enough hydro-electricity that many say could guarantee the country’s economic security.

Such growth finds its apogee in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa, where the skyline changes every month with new towering buildings. But a very different side to Ethiopia remains outside modernising cities where about 80 percent of Ethiopia’s population, subsisting on rain-dependant agriculture, live.

In a health clinic outside Adigrat, Tigray’s second largest town, 17-year-old Milite sat with her two-year-old. A special tape measure around her daughter’s arm read yellow – “moderately” malnourished.

As 17-year-old Milite describes not having enough food at her grandmother’s home where she lives, and the soldier father deserting them, she starts crying.

ALSO READ: Drought takes terrible toll in Ethiopia

Those trying to initiate donor-funded programmes to bolster the Ethiopian government’s efforts say that while people are not actually starving, they are close enough. Such concerns are heightened by the chance El Nino quashes Ethiopia’s next rainy season.

The UN estimates such a situation could result in up to 15 million Ethiopians suffering by mid-2016 unless donations increase.

That’s the short-term. Aid agencies are warning that significant gains made in food security, education and health over the years are now in jeopardy in some parts of Ethiopia.

“The consequences could ripple through generations,” said the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund.

Foreign financial assistance is already arriving and combined with money committed by the Ethiopian government totals about $360m to confront the drought’s aftermath. But the overall emergency response could cost $1.4bn, according to aid agencies, especially if fears about El Nino and Ethiopia’s next rainy season come true. 

James Jeffrey is a British freelance journalist based in Addis Ababa, where he writes about Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.

Source: Al Jazeera

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