Emerging food crisis in Afar Region and East Shewa Zone, Ethiopia

Famine Early Warning Systems Network/Ethiopia Food Security WARNING

Issued: 8 July 2002 Extended: 23 July 2002 Valid Until: 23 August 2002

Afar is a semi-arid region of northeastern Ethiopia. Of the nearly 1.2 million rural population of the region, most are subsistence pastoralists who heavily depend on livestock for their survival. Each pastoralist needs a minimum of about 1,000-1,750 kg live-weight biomass (4-7 TLUs) or roughly 2-5 camels or 4-7 cattle or 25-77 sheep and goats to survive. Pastoralists with fewer than 5 TLUs are generally considered poor . On average, Afar pastoralists possess the minimum number of TLUs (Table 1) but current conditions have already started reducing this number further, threatening pastoralism as a viable way of life. The region has experienced major droughts every 2-3 years since 1993, affecting an increasingly large number of the rural population (indicated by the peak years in Figure 1).

In some cases, entire families have migrated along with their animals to distant grazing areas outside the region. Due to the widespread nature of the drought and ethnic conflict in several areas within the region, livestock movements to alternative water and grazing areas have also been severely constrained, weakening livestock and causing a significant increase in livestock mortality. The drought has equally affected neighboring Fentale District of East Shewa Zone (Oromiya Region) where severe shortages of pasture and water and consequent poor physical conditions and deaths of livestock have been widely reported.

A multi-agency assessment undertaken in the above areas in June 2002 confirmed earlier reports from various sources (NGOs, UN Agencies, FEWS NET, etc.) that the physical condition of livestock is very poor and market prices for livestock are also very low. Cattle and sheep account for a majority of the livestock population in the region (Table 2), but they are less drought-tolerant than camels and goats. Although the drought is widespread, the situation is most serious in Zones 3 and 5 and parts of Zone 2 (Afar Region) and Fentale District (Oromiya Region). A joint OFDA/USAID/FEWS NET team that traveled to the above areas around mid-July has also verified the severity of the situation.

Prior to the current crisis, the January 2002 appeal for food aid by The Ethiopian Government’s Disaster Prevention and Preparedness Commission (DPPC) indicated that over 225,000 people in the region required food assistance for a period of 5 months starting from February 2002. However, because of an overall shortage of donor pledges and availability of relief commodities, DPPC only distributed a one-month ration to the drought-stricken region between January and May. The January 2002 DPPC appeal identified no needs for the second half of 2002, assuming rainfall would be normal during the 2002 sugum season.

On 12 July 2002 DPPC issued a Special Alert that outlined the deteriorating food security situation in several parts of the country, particularly in the Afar Region and neighboring East Shewa Zone. According to the Special Alert, over 448,000 people in Afar Region and about 33,000 people in Fentale District require food assistance for periods of up to 6 months starting from July 2002. The new numbers for Afar have almost doubled the number of beneficiaries in the January 2002 DPPC appeal.

Figure 1. Historical Food Aid Needs in Afar Region (1993-2002)

Source: DPPC.
Graphics by FEWS NET/Ethiopia.

To mitigate the deteriorating situation, the DPPC dispatched 3,600 MT of food aid to Afar Region and an additional 417 MT of food aid to Fentale District in late June and is in the process of allocating blended food to the most affected people. Yet, there is also an urgent need to protect the animals on which the survival of pastoralist livelihoods is based. Cattle already face emergency survival conditions. Saving the breeding stock will ultimately determine the scale of the current crisis and the pace of post-drought recovery. Without protecting and preserving pastoralist livelihoods, pastoralists are likely to quickly become highly food insecure, forced to reduce consumption below acceptable standards and dispose of their animals as productive assets, thereby undermining their future food security.

The long-range weather forecast for the June-September period is not promising. Both the Ethiopian National Meteorological Services Agency (NMSA) and the Drought Monitoring Center in Nairobi (DMCN) predict poor rainfall prospects for northeastern Ethiopia, including the Afar Region. Should the main Karma rains (mid-July to mid-September) be delayed or fall below-average, livestock are expected to die in large numbers, threatening the livelihood of hundreds of thousands of pastoralists in Afar Region and neighboring Fentale District.

FEWS NET recommends that the following priority interventions receive immediate attention:

  • Continue delivery of general rations for the highly food insecure people (over 448,000 in Afar Region and nearly 33,000 in Fentale District) and targeted supplementary food aid for the most vulnerable among the food insecure
  • Undertake a rapid nutrition assessment in order to determine the extent of malnutrition and for targeting supplementary food
  • Pre-position drugs for the treatment of water-borne diseases affecting human beings that could erupt following a resumption of the main rains
  • Repair dysfunctional water pumps and clearing ponds
  • Vaccinate livestock in areas where large number of livestock are concentrated
  • Provide targeted emergency feed (molasses, mineral licks, hay, etc.) to preserve the breeding stock

1 Dennis Herlocker (ed.) Rangeland Resources in Eastern Africa: Their Ecology and Development. August 1999.


Daniel Molla, author. Phil Steffen, reviewer.