Emergency in Ethiopia

Struck by the worst drought in fifty years, Ethiopia is in the midst of a true humanitarian crisis, one that has largely been ignored by mainstream media. In this three-part series, the Ethiopian case study will be used to explore food poverty in a global context.

The current situation

Eighteen months of erratic rains – worsened by this year’s super El Niño – have decimated agricultural productivity in Ethiopia, leaving 10.2 million people at risk of critical food shortages. Of those, the humanitarian community anticipates that 2.6 million will experience acute malnutrition and 5.8 million will lack access to appropriate water, sanitation, and hygiene.

In Ethiopia, the pastoral areas of Afar and the northern Somali region, along with the agricultural lowlands of the East and West Haraghe Zones, will be the most impacted regions. They are currently labeled with the Emergency (IPC Phase 4) level of food insecurity. The large refugee population in Ethiopia is also predicted to be severely affected, since refugees are already in a state of vulnerability. With 732,000 refugees from Eritrea, Somalia, Sudan, and South Sudan, Ethiopia is by far the largest refugee host in Africa. That said, Ethiopia’s relative stability compared to these volatile nation states does not ensure improved welfare for refugees. Government programs have a difficult enough time reaching Ethiopian nationals. Refugees are often ignored and forgotten, left with little hope of ever transitioning out of large-scale refugee camps or improving their living conditions.

With 10.2 million Ethiopians projected to require emergency food aid this year, refugees and Ethiopian nationals alike face a frightening next few months. Farmers in Ethiopia usually harvest twice a year, and both the smaller belg season and the main meher season are expected to produce yields well below average this year. Of course, it is not just the agricultural products that are taking a huge hit – dried-out pastures were responsible for 200,000 livestock deaths in 2015, with an additional 450,000 predicted this year. Livestock death does not only deplete a valuable source of protein; it also acts as an irrecoverable income shock, pushing vulnerable families into extreme poverty.

A 30-year-long emergency

Devastating as the current drought is, it would be naïve to describe the crisis in Ethiopia as if it were an abrupt and isolated event. On the contrary, the current drought is simply the tipping point of decades’ worth of underinvestment and poor governance. For the past century, Ethiopia has been in a near-constant state of instability, with millions of vulnerable people just barely scraping by.

As of 2010, 30% of the population subsists on less than $1.90 per day (the international standard of extreme poverty) and 70% subsist on less than $3.10 per day. A potentially more revealing statistic is that 81% of the total population live in rural areas, where subsistence farming tends to be the only economic activity. This means that for a vast majority of Ethiopians, a month’s worth of bad weather can literally be the difference between poverty and sustenance, and often, life and death.

It should come as no surprise, then, that for the past three decades, Ethiopia has struggled with food insecurity. Each year since 1984, regardless of good harvests or plentiful rain, the survival of more than five million people has been dependent on food aid for at least six months of the year – most of the recipients being subsistence farmers themselves.

An anecdote from Addis Ababa encapsulates the oxymoronic phenomenon of chronic emergency food aid:

There is a joke told in Ethiopia… In it, two subsistence farmers are talking about the year’s poor rains and the impact on their harvests. The older, his face and hands worn from a lifetime of hard work, turns to his younger friend and offers some advice: “It is not the rains in Ethiopia you need to worry about, but whether it rains in America or Canada.”

In the second installment of this series, I will describe the United States food aid response to Ethiopia. In the third, I will zero in on teff – Ethiopia’s staple crop – and explain why the sustainable solution to local food poverty may in fact be a global one.


Image courtesy of Flickr. Originally published by S&S on July 28, 2016.


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