El Niño leaves hunger in its wake

Copyright: WFP/Melese Awoke

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An estimated 10.2 million people are now food insecure in Ethiopia, as a result of an exceptional drought exacerbated by the El Niño event that began last year. The situation not only in the country but also across the whole of East Africa is predicted to worsen in coming months.
After peaking in late December, the warming El Niño phenomenon is slowly fading, with Pacific Ocean surface temperatures starting to decrease. But as public attention declines, a food crisis brought about by last year’s erratic weather is fast becoming an emergency.

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Two walk past maize donated by the UN’s World Food Programme 
Image credit: WFP/Melese Awoke

East Africa, and Ethiopia in particular, has experienced reduced rainfall in 2015. This has been disastrous for farmers and herders. Aid agencies have described this crisis as the most severe in 30 years — and many warn that the worst is yet to come.
According to the Famine Early Warning Systems Network: “Poor households in southern Afar and northern Somali regions are already experiencing acute food insecurity, and the breadth and severity of impacts in central and eastern Ethiopia are expected to expand through much of 2016.”
The consequences of a lack of rain between June and September will be seen between now and March, during the main cropping season in northern East Africa. Traditionally, January marks the start of the harvesting period, when markets are usually replenished, but this year’s yields are predicted to be dire, and fodder scarce.

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Failed sorghum crops in West Hararghe in eastern Ethiopia. Because of a particularly strong El Niño that began last year, the main harvest in affected areas is predicted to be well below average 
Image credit: WFP/Melese Awoke

“Weather forecasts suggest that rain patterns may get back to normal this year, but, until then, the food crisis will remain extremely severe,” says Shukri Ahmed, a senior economist at the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization.
The agency recently issued an El Niño emergency response plan that targets pastoralists and herders, those who, it says, have suffered most. “The FAO is appealing for US$15 million, the bulk of which will be spent to support pastoralists whose livestock is debilitated,” Ahmed says. “We will provide cash as an incentive to slaughter the weakest animals and [to provide] food to the core breeding cattle, so pastoralists will be able to rebuild their herds.”
The FAO also plans to distribute seeds and encourage drought-resistant seed production at a community level.

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Lule Dubet came with her ten children to Gurgur, 30 kilometres from their home in Ethiopia’s Somali region, in search of food. She lost 25 of her cattle because of the drought, and the remaining two are dying 
Image credit: WFP/Melese Awoke

 According to Simon Langan, a researcher at non-profit research organisation the International Water Management Institute in Ethiopia, the crisis is systemic. “Maybe we should never have called [the phenomemon] climate change,” he says. “The words climate change suggest that something happens in an orderly fashion.” In a world shaped by progressive and even changes, adapting is fairly easy. “But, in fact, with events such as El Niño, we experience these huge variations, either too much rain, or indeed unpredictable rain,” he says. “It’s this uncertainty that unsettles people.”

Langan believes more research is needed to understand the interaction between food crisis and water systems, and that more should be spent on preventing rather than simply responding to crises.
“When thinking of drought-stricken areas, the mental picture that a lot of people have is of dry landscapes and dead cattle, but this is not necessarily the reality,” he says. “In many areas, water is present, but people lack the capacity to collect and store it.”
One way to improve this capacity would be by expanding small-scale irrigation. Farmers could use pumps to extract water from the ground during the dry season, when extra irrigation is needed.
Another idea, says Langan, would be to grow fodder in areas that remain fertile even when drought strikes. Supplies could then be trucked to struggling herders.

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This water borehole has been installed as part of a new government pilot project that aims to help farmers practise irrigated agriculture in the village of Gabi in Ethiopia’s Somali region. Around 20 of this type of borehole are being used to water parched land in the region 
Image credit: WFP/Melese Awoke

 Oxfam humanitarian manager Jane Cocking agrees that building resilience in the face of a food shortage is crucial in many ways, because crises are complex. “In this crisis, the impact of climate extremes is also tied to the impacts of conflict and development in general, so it’s very difficult to disaggregate the impacts of El Niño from other humanitarian impacts,” she says. In South Sudan, for example, conflict keeps disrupting trade, livelihoods and humanitarian assets, such as food stores.
Currently, Oxfam’s priority is to keep farmers on their feet by protecting their assets — whether livestock or crops — so that when the crisis is over they don’t have to rebuild everything from scratch. Cocking believes that this food crisis, despite being as severe as the one 30 years ago, is causing less damage because it’s better managed. “Humanitarian agencies and government have learnt from past experience and they are getting better at preparing for such events,” she says.

But East Africa still lacks wells and other forms of water infrastructure, and the impacts of climate-related extreme events and conflict highlight the need for greater understanding and research into systemic crises.

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Women and children wait for World Food Programme donations at a food distribution centre in Gurgur near Somali region, Ethiopia 
Image credit: WFP/Melese Awoke