Ethiopia Emergency Bulletin 1: Ethiopia Food crisis

Situation Report
Originally published
At a glance
Key issues affecting children
  • The government of Ethiopia predicts that 4 million children will be affected by food shortages this year; children in pastoral areas are particularly badly affected.
  • Diseases associated with malnutrition are likely to increase.
  • The cumulative impact of consecutive droughts and crop failures is pushing more and more families into poverty and destitution.
Key themes for save the children uk in ethiopia
  • In 1999 Save the Children provided over 33,000 metric tonnes (MT) of food aid. This year, the organisation has already secured 16,500 MT.
  • Monitoring the nutritional situation of children and alerting government and donors to any deterioration.
  • Providing supplementary food for malnourished children.
  • Implementing strategies that help Ethiopia to overcome its food security problems in the longer term.
  • Working through the Save the Children Alliance to maximise impact.
Key partners

Save the Children programmes emphasise the importance of strengthening local capacity. Projects are carried out in partnership with government departments and local and international non-governmental organisations.


Ethiopia faces another food crisis. In January, the government launched its largest appeal for food aid in eight years - 900,000 metric tonnes of food, enough for 8 million people. Relief is desparately needed to respond to the cumulative effects of recurrent drought, the erosion of community coping capacities and the provision of inadequate relief. Donors are responding to the government's appeal, but even if all the food requested is delivered, getting it to those in need is problematic. Compounding the problem is the fact that this year's belg rains, expected in February, have not yet arrived. This could result in even greater numbers of people needing food aid.

Current crisis

In January the government issued an appeal for 900,000 MT of food aid. This would cover the needs of 8 million people affected by drought and by the conflict with Eritrea. Two areas are particularly badly affected: the highlands and the south.

The appeal is the largest issued since 1992, a particularly bad year. It follows an assessment carried out by the Food and Agricultural Organisation and the World Food Programme (FAO/WFP) in November 1999 that forecast a national cereal deficit of 627,000 MT in 2000. The assessment suggested that reasons for the food shortages were complex, and included immediate "shocks" (the current drought) as well as a longer-term deterioration in food security.

In the highly-populated highland areas, the current crisis is the result of a complete failure of the belg rains (February-May) in 1999. This year's belg is now quite late and is forecast to be erratic, compounding the problem still further. This is the fourth consecutive year that these vital rains have failed.

The failure of the 1999 belg led to crop and livestock losses in the Northern and Eastern Highlands (North and South Wollo, South Tigray, North Shoa, East and West Hararghe) and in the South (Konso and North Omo). Yields for the main kremt season (July-November) throughout the country also suffered. Given the lack of rain earlier in the season, many farmers could not prepare their land for cultivation, and were unable to plant high-yielding, long-cycle crops. Some farmers in the highlands attempted to make up for a failed belg by planting short-cycle varieties. However, in the high altitudes crops are vulnerable to extreme weather such as heavy rain, frost and hail.

The drought, combined with on-going difficulties with access to water, has also had an impact on the pastoral rangelands in the South of the country. There is now an advanced emergency in parts Somali Region (principally Gode Zone), and the Borena and Bale Zones of Oromiya. People are moving to towns in search of assistance and aid workers are reporting high levels of malnutrition and morbidity. Some 2 million people may be affected in these areas, which have suffered inadequate rainfall in the last two to three years.

This immediate cause of the crisis in the South is the failure of the deyr rains in October-November. This caused a loss of grazing land and severe shortages in water for human and animal consumption. In addition, crop production in rain-fed areas has been insignificant for the past two years. The death toll of livestock has been extraordinary: at least 90 per cent of cattle and 65 per cent of sheep have already died. There has been decline in livestock prices due to their weakness and diminished demand in local markets, and a corresponding increase in cereal prices. (Cereals form the major part of the nomadic diet during dry season.)

The 350,000 people displaced by the war with Eritrea are particularly vulnerable to food shortages - the majority are entirely dependent on relief assistance. In 1999, less than two-thirds of the food needed reached the displaced in Tigray, resulting in a food basket that was both inadequate and unbalanced. Save the Children undertook a nutritional and food security assessment of the displaced in August 1999. The survey found "acceptable" levels of child malnutrition, but a high risk of malnutrition and morbidity among younger children.

The current crisis reflects the impact of three poor years. Research by Save the Children suggests that families in vulnerable areas are becoming poorer and that many have exhausted all their normal coping mechanisms. This trend is affecting all income groups: wealthier households have been forced to sell-off their herds, have stopped hiring agricultural labourers, and have started collecting water and firewood themselves rather than employing others to do it for them. This has had a knock-on effect on poorer income groups who normally depend on wage labour.

Significant amounts of food aid were distributed towards the middle of last year, helping to avert a famine. However, the response was mounted too late: many households had already liquidated their remaining assets and had left their farms in search of food. Levels of child malnutrition were unacceptably high by the time food aid began too arrive, and the amounts provided were inadequate to significantly improve nutritional status. Research by Save the Children showed that a large percentage of households experienced a food energy deficit in 1999 despite food distributions.

In pastoral areas the government has appealed for a comprehensive package of assistance including food, health kits, medicine, fodder for animals, veterinary medicine and water tankers. Despite the unfolding emergency, inadequate levels of assistance have been delivered, largely due to poor roads and insecurity throughout many of the affected areas.

Distributing food to those in need is hampered by two factors. First, although substantial food aid has been promised (approximately 600,000 MT has been pledged so far), there are long delays in actual deliveries. Ethiopia has established an Emergency Food Security Reserve to act as a buffer. However, the Reserve has a critically low level of stock: currently around 60,000 MT. This is less than is required for a single month's distribution. A special rapid shipment of 80,000 MT from the US and a recent pledge by the government to provide 100,000 MT has gone some way to alleviating the problem. But most major shipments of food are not due before June, so concerns about the level of the reserve remain.

Second, relief requirements may exceed national logistics capacity to actually deliver the assistance. Last year, the maximum monthly distribution was 64,000 MT, and this amount severely stretched available trucking capacity. This year, up to 120,000 MT in a single month will need to be distributed - and this does not include stocks that must be pre-positioned before the main rains start in July, when roads become impassable. Compounding this problem is the loss of access to Massawa and Assab ports in Eritrea. Ethiopia is now dangerously over-reliant on Djibouti port for most of its imports.

If there is a total failure of this year's belg, as forecast, then the number of people in need of food aid could increase to over 10 million. This will mean that an enormous amount of food will have to be moved in July - December - the time of the Kremt rains. If the war in Eritrea is re-ignited, it is unlikely that transport (or port) capacity will be able to meet this demand.


Ethiopia is one of the poorest countries in the world with appalling poverty, and large areas permanently vulnerable to food insecurity. It has the world's lowest average income - just $100 per person per year - and the government faces an external debt of more than $10 billion, equivalent to 131 per cent of GNP. World Bank, Entering the 21st Century - World Development Report 1999/2000 Oxford University Press 1999 More than half the population lives below the poverty line, and about 30 per cent live in absolute poverty.


Food insecurity remains the principal obstacle to development in Ethiopia. Agriculture is the mainstay of the economy, but over a third of rural households farm less than 0.5 hectares of land, and the majority of farmers are dependent on highly variable rainfall. In the face of a rapidly growing population, per capita food production and domestic food availability have been declining since the 1960s. Even in a year of excellent harvests, approximately 26 million Ethiopians - more than 40 per cent of the farming population - do not produce enough food and income to meet their families' nutritional requirements "Special Report: FAO/WFP Crop and Food Supply Assessment to Ethiopia" , 21 December 1998. The consequences are evident in the very high levels of under-nutrition in Ethiopia. According to the World Bank's Social Sector Report (1998), almost two-thirds of children under six years of age suffer from stunting, and over ten per cent from wasting. Furthermore, in rural areas, the stunting figures have increased, from 60 per cent in 1983 to over 68 per cent in 1995/96.

People are more vulnerable to food shortages today than they were at the time of the 1984/85 famine. Save the Children research suggests that this may be because land holdings are getting smaller as the population increases; basic assets remain scarce as poor harvests force households to sell what belongings they have in order to purchase food, or farmers are increasingly buying, rather than growing, their own food leaving them dependent on earning income. However, employment opportunities are also declining in the face of rapidly increasing demand.

A further problem is that changing weather patterns are leading to shorter and weaker belg rains. Some farmers in the extreme highlands are totally dependent on belg rains to plant short-cycle crops that are harvested before the heavy rains and frost in July and August. But many more farmers plant their main, long-cycle crop during the belg rains. If the belg fails, these farmers are also forced to switch from long-cycle to short-cycle crops planted during the later rains. These short-cycle varieties produce far lower yields.

There are also structural causes behind food insecurity. Central and western regions of Ethiopia often produce a grain surplus - indeed, Ethiopia has in the recent past exported food to neighbouring countries. However, a poor road network and the lack of inter-regional trade means that this food rarely reaches areas with a food deficit.

The other key weakness in Ethiopia's economy is its dependence on coffee as an export. The price of coffee on the international market is notoriously volatile, and is determined mainly by production in Latin American countries. If Latin America has a poor harvest, the price of coffee goes up and Ethiopia's foreign-exchange earnings rise, while a good harvest in Latin America has the opposite effect.

In May 1998, a border dispute between Eritrea and Ethiopia escalated into an armed conflict. The war has resulted in an estimated 40,000 - 60,000 deaths and created some 350,000 homeless people, either deported refugees from Eritrea or internally displaced within Ethiopia. It has also had a dramatic impact on food security in Ethiopia. In particular:

  • mobilisation of the private sector trucking capacity, as well as the government's own strategic relief fleet, to the war effort has severely restricted the capacity in country to move relief supplies. The costs for trucks available increased significantly in 1999.
  • the ports of Massawa and Assab (in Eritrea) are no longer accessible to Ethiopia, affecting the importation of relief/food supplies. Djibouti, which has a much smaller capacity than Assab, remains the main option although the port of Berbera in North West Somalia has started to be used to move relief supplies;
  • the traditional labour markets in Eritrea and western Tigray have been closed further limiting income in rural households.
Save the Children's response

Food aid

Save the Children responded to food shortages in mid-1999 by providing 36,000 MT of relief grain in North and South Wollo, Wag Hamra and East Haraghe. In Region 3 (Amhara), Save the Children provided 1,600 MT of supplementary food (for severely malnourished children) and 12 portable warehouses. This year, the organisation has secured a total of 16,509 MT of food aid and 300 MT of seeds, and is applying for further supplies. Of the 16,509 MT already secured, 6,240 MT is from the UK's Department for International Development, 5,269 MT is from the EU, and 5,000 MT is from the Dutch government.

Save the Children believes that if disruptions to the food aid pipeline do occur, which is likely, the government should target the most vulnerable areas, and give these full rations, rather than spread limited food around the country.

Save the Children is also assisting the government to develop guidelines on the targeting of food aid, which aim to ensure that those most in need are reached.


In response to the major food shortages that emerged last year, Save the Children deployed five emergency nutrition monitoring teams: four in Wollo and one in East Hararghe. They produced monthly updates on the nutritional status of children in these areas, which in turn informed ongoing relief operations. Reports showed that the quantity of relief food provided was far from adequate, and that rations meant for one family were being shared among many families. By early autumn 1999, the nutritional status of children had deteriorated to an alarming level. These findings were supported by a major assessment of the impact of food aid using the Household Food Economy methodology (see below), completed in February 2000 Mathys, E. "Assessment of the Impact of Food Aid on Household Economies of North Wollo, South Wollo and East Hararghe. It found that not enough food aid is being distributed and that rations are far too small. The aim of this work is to ensure that food aid is targeted more efficiently and effectively.

This year, Save the Children will continue its monitoring of children's nutritional status in the Northern Highlands. This work will assess whether the relief operation is meeting nutritional needs and whether additional supplementary feeding and therapeutic feeding programmes are needed.

Save the Children has also maintained an active involvement in monitoring the needs of families displaced by the Eritrean war. A September 1999 survey revealed that nutrition status was relatively stable but that the population was entirely dependent on relief food.

Save the Children UK is part of the International Save the Children Alliance, which ensures effective co-ordination between all Save the Children organisations in Ethiopia. This year, Save the Children - US is taking a lead role in responding to the emergency in pastoral areas: it is distributing food, providing water and running feeding programmes for children.

Save the Children's monitoring work is well-established in Ethiopia. The Nutritional Surveillance Programme, set up after the 1973-4 famine, developed into a nation-wide monitoring system that provided early warning of developing food crises and confirmation of existing food shortages. The programme also makes extensive use of the Household Food Economy Approach, developed by Save the Children in Ethiopia and elsewhere, which provides more detailed information about food security at a household level.


The 1999 food crisis arose in part because of inadequate assessments in 1998 - both the government and donors were convinced that 1999 would be a year of minimum food aid needs and as a result gave very little in food aid contributions. Only a few voices, including Save the Children's, warned that there might be problems.

In the event a major famine was avoided, though only narrowly, by the existence of a large food security reserve. This allowed the government to begin delivering food aid as soon as it became clear that harvests had failed, rather than waiting on new food aid shipments. Save the Children works closely with the government's Disaster Prevention and Preparedness Commission (DPPC) to maintain the reserve (by encouraging donor contributions) and to monitor and respond to potential food shortages.

Understanding the underlying problems of poverty and destitution is crucial to developing long-term solutions to Ethiopia's food security problems. As each new emergency develops, there is a tendency to ignore the chronic problems that underpin it. Research suggests that livelihoods are becoming increasingly unsustainable, because of the following trends:

  • Consecutive poor harvests in recent years, with an inadequate relief response
  • Household coping strategies are exhausted - families have sold most of their assets and livestock
  • Families do not have adequate resources, such as plough oxen and seeds, to prepare land
  • Employment opportunities are limited, so few can earn a cash income
  • Farms are getting smaller, and thus soil is becoming over-used and degraded, and families are unable to meet annual food needs from their own production.
Save the Children is planning to coordinate a 'destitution' study that will look at these trends in greater detail.