Ethiopia's rain-lashed Wolaita zone holds its breath for the harvest

By Alex Wynter in Goba, Ethiopia

Carefully targeted humanitarian food interventions, supported by the Finnish and Austrian Red Cross and the Federation and implemented by the Ethiopian Red Cross Society, have helped alleviate a food-security crisis in Wolaita in the SNNPR region.

But those projects will soon be winding down, and all eyes there are on crucial harvests starting about now - of wheat, maize, barley and teff - which are almost certain to have been damaged in unseasonal heavy rain.

"Our work pulled people back from the brink earlier this year, but we cannot afford to relax," says Kassahun Habtemariam, ERCS team leader for disaster preparedness and prevention.

"If the harvest is poor or fails altogether, then we could be back in an emergency situation very quickly," according to Hannele Kankuri, the Addis Ababa-based Finnish Red Cross team leader, whose food-relief effort was funded by ECHO.

The paradox of Ethiopia's food crisis is that as the eastern and southern lowlands suffer an acute drought, which is forecast to worsen in 2009, parts of the central highlands - including the capital - have seen torrential downpours almost daily, causing lethal flash-floods in places.

What both parts of the country have in common is that familiar weather patterns have gone haywire, making life especially difficult for subsistence farmers and pastoralists.

Crop prospects

A country bulletin from the UN's Office for the Coordination of Human Affairs (OCHA) last week said harvests looked "promising" in the west. But crop prospects in the east, particularly in the lowlands, were "poor" due to inadequate rain.

The food-aid requirement in Ethiopia countrywide remains huge, according to experienced aid workers in Addis Ababa, and the drought effect is going to be worse next year, they say. The main challenge for humanitarian response remains available resources, with competing priorities for donors from countries like Afghanistan and now Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Emergency needs for the first half of 2009 are being worked out by an inter-agency assessment exercise that began earlier this month in Tigray and will be agreed with the government.

Ethiopia, meanwhile, is the latest stop for an interdisciplinary team from the International Federation, helping Horn of Africa National Societies plan ways to scale up efforts to address what many observers continue to regard as the worst humanitarian crisis in the world.

The team, which includes experts in nutrition, agriculture, health, relief, water and sanitation, and livelihoods, visited Wolaita and confirmed the general impression that the food emergency there had abated.

In June, more than 160 severely malnourished children a week were coming from surrounding villages for intensive feeding in the Damot Pulasa woreda (district), making it likely that up to 4,000 children across the district were suffering lower levels of malnutrition.

Adult hunger was also clearly in evidence.

Scorched lowlands

But the situation in Wolaita remains precarious, like many other parts of the country.

The two woredas chosen for the Red Cross projects were assessed by the Ethiopian Red Cross and the government to be among the worst affected in the zone: between them some 76,000 beneficiaries were assisted.

A further 20,000 were included in the Ethiopian government's national "safety net" programme in the Finnish-assisted woreda, Damot Gale.

An attempt by the Federation team to get through to the parched lowlands to the east of Goba, in Bale zone, had to be abandoned when the road became completely impassable.

In Ethiopia, a descent of much more than 5,000 feet can encompass almost the full range of conditions from saturated ground and dirt tracks made impassable by heavy rain to extreme drought that drives struggling pastoralists in the other direction.

Over the past few years some small farmers in the mid-highland regions have been forced to commute to higher elevations, where the rain has been more plentiful to seek day-work after their own crops failed.

Farmers like Abdulahi Adem, 35, married with six children, who grows teff, maize and wheat in Keku village, Bale zone. "Before when we planted in a normal period we produced plenty of everything," he says. "But due to the rains failing this year we were able to collect only four bags [200kg].

"The weather has been changing. But this year it seems better because there was rainfall and it might help us to produce more. In the past two years all we planted was lost because of a shortage of rain."

At these elevations, at least, there are some alternatives. But down in the scorched lowlands, like Afar and the Somali region, pastoralists have little choice but to move further and further afield to find shrinking supplies of pasture and browse.