Localized areas of extreme vulnerability and targeting problems persist in East Hararghe (Mission: 25-29 July 1999)

By Laura Hammond, Monitoring Officer, UNDP Emergencies Unit for Ethiopia

East Hararghe zone in the Oromiya National Regional State is a complex agro-ecological area in which heavy population density, high ratio of cash to food crops, unpredictable rainfall, and significant differences between the agricultural practices within the three main altitude zones create a complicated agricultural profile, and at the same time support a population that is in general highly vulnerable to food insecurity. Food shortages are often difficult to detect, as green fields tend to mask vulnerability, and pockets of extreme hunger may exist literally a few kilometers from areas of relative food stability.

As early as October 1998, severe food insecurity was reported in the zone, and large numbers of stress and labour migrants were reported to have left their homes. These trends continued until April or May of this year. See Joachim Ahrens, "Food Shortages Force Oromos of East Hararghe into Migration," UN-EUE, 12 November 1998, and Yves Guinand, "Mission Report - East and West Hararghe, 20-28 April 1999", UN-EUE, 17 May 1999.

In June 1999, a joint assessment conducted by the Disaster Prevention and Preparedness Commission (DPPC) and the UN agencies identified the most urgent nonfood needs in East Hararghe, and these were included in the UN Country Team’s Relief Action Plan and Appeal for Assistance to The Most Severely Drought Affected Areas of Ethiopia, issued on 12 July.

From 25 - 29 July, UN-EUE participated in a multi-agency mission to East Hararghe to assess current crop conditions, food and non-food needs of rural residents, and food availability/distributions in the area. The mission was organized by the USAID Food for Peace Officer, and also included representatives from USAID/Washington, OFDA/Nairobi, and WFP. In addition to consultations held with the East Hararghe Zonal Administration and DPPD in Harar, the mission visited Fedis, Gursum, Kurfuchalle and Grawa weredas. These were considered to be among the worst affected weredas. During the different field visits the mission team was accompanied by members of the zonal Disaster Prevention and Preparedness Department (DPPD), Save the Children-UK (SCF-UK), Hararghe Catholic Secretariat (HCS) and CARE in each of their respective project areas.

1999 Food Shortage Emergency in Ethiopia

The main cause of the 1999 food shortage emergency in Ethiopia is generally considered to be drought. A full understanding of the crisis, however, requires the recognition of a complex range of factors spreading over several years:

  • Crop yields over the past 2-3 years have been generally low. Although the 1998 meher crop was reported to have produced a bumper harvest in some areas, in others excessive and/or erratic rain late in the season caused higher than expected losses following the pre-harvest crop assessment.
  • The 1999 belg crop has failed in many areas due to lack of rain.
  • Armyworm infestations in some parts of the country (including East Hararghe) attacked crops this year in June; lack of rain encouraged the spread of armyworm (usually rain drowns the worms and halts the attack), and in some places there was a second attack. Many farmers did not have sufficient seeds to replant their fields.
  • In most areas, landholdings are too small to be self-sustaining. Farmers therefore are unable to preserve or expand their assets and are chronically food insecure.
  • Drought has led to large livestock losses, reducing households’ income-earning potential, particularly in the agro-pastoralist and pastoralist lowlands.
  • Over the last seven years the cumulative response from the food aid donors has been significantly less than the amount requested in the DPPC’s annual appeals.
  • In different parts of the country, the food emergency is manifested in distinct ways, and it is not always possible to generalize about the causes of the problem or the impact upon the local population.

These factors are combined differently throughout the country, so observations and conclusions about the food shortage in one area do not necessarily apply to other areas.

I. The Problem in East Hararghe

East Hararghe has a rural population of 1.89 million in 15 weredas. The population figure of 1,892,415 is projected from the 1994 Census figures.

In this area, the current food emergency is largely attributed to drought, which has affected the zone for the past two to three years, as well as to pest infestations. According to the zonal administration, food for 1,132,546 people was requested for the period June - December 1999, although only enough food for 640,660 has been allocated by the Federal DPPC. The chart below shows the differences between request and allocation sizes:

Name of Wereda
No. of Affected PAs
Total No. of Estimated Benefs. - Zonal
Total No. of Estimated Benefs. - Central
Gulo Oda
Goro Gutu
Melka Bilo
Grand Total

Sources: E. Hararghe DPPD and Federal DPPC

The larger beneficiary figure includes both farmers affected by belg crop failure and pastoralists/agropastoralists affected by food shortage. At the time of the mission, zonal officials were still awaiting a response from the region as to whether they will accept the new, higher figure. DPPD representatives have been assigned to ten of the worst affected weredas since September 1998 in order to gather early warning information and to monitor distributions. Their effectiveness is hampered by the lack of logistical support, particularly transport, to visit the outlying areas.

The mission noted that although the fields, particularly in the highlands, appeared green, the crop stands in many areas were too low to be able to expect the crops to reach full maturity. In some cases, stalks will have to be used for animal fodder; in others, the crops may not even reach this stage if the rains are not consistent or end before late September or early October. In addition, the total amount of land planted for both meher and belg seasons is reportedly lower than expected due to the fact that many farmers lacked seeds and/or oxen to prepare their fields, or lost their crops early in the season due to pest infestation.

Whereas in the northern part of Ethiopia (North and South Welo) the highlands are most affected by the belg rain failure, in East Hararghe it is the lowlands and mid-lowlands that are most severely affected, for these areas regularly receive much less rainfall even in good years. In addition, the lowlands produce only about 20% of their staple food needs annually and thus depend on the midlands during the belg growing season to trade with (livestock for food) as well as for waged labour in the cash crop fields. Finally, the lack of rain also results in a shortage of grazing land in the lowlands. Heavy losses of livestock, especially cattle, were reported by the zonal administration, and animal carcasses were observed in several areas of the zone. Even in the highlands, where rainfall is higher and crop stands were observed to be relatively good, farmers were harvesting some of their crops prior to full maturation for immediate consumption as, they said, they had exhausted their household food supplies.

The mission team asked the DPPD and NGO representatives to show them the worst affected areas. However, there appeared to be a lack of information about the current conditions on the part of government officials. This may be partly attributed to the fact that government staff lack the resources (vehicles, budget for fuel and per diem) to travel widely throughout the zone. Many of the places the team was shown were said to be the worst off, but in fact did not appear to be as badly affected as other areas. By chance, several dozen severely malnourished people appeared in Harar to request assistance. Upon ascertaining that they had come from peasant associations in the mid-lowlands of Kurfuchalle wereda, the team immediately drove to this area. There they found the entire populations of some villages in advanced stages of malnutrition. Most of the children were so severely weakened that even if they had received immediate supplementary food it is doubtful that many of them would have survived. Isolated pockets of extreme food insecurity characterize the nature of the crisis in East Hararghe, and make monitoring extremely difficult.

NGO staff working in East Hararghe said that DPPC and NGO early warning systems had been functioning, but that people did not heed the predictions of impending food emergency. Last year, American bollworm destroyed much of the sorghum crops, but the post-harvest assessment failed to report this.

Fedis Wereda

Fedis wereda, with a population of 251,991, was said to be the worst affected wereda by NGOs working in the area. Mass migration occurred during the first half of the year from Fedis to the towns of Jigjiga, Dire Dawa, Babile Harar and Kombolcha (East Hararghe). Rural residents reported that they had gone to these places to beg in the streets since there was no waged labour available. In some areas, migrants were reported to have gone to the refugee camps along the border with Somaliland to beg for food from the refugees. Decisions as to where to migrate were made on the basis of labour or begging opportunities as well as the existence of clan relations since many Oromo are of mixed Somali lineage and are related to Issa, Ogaden, or Issaq clans.

The Fechatu health station reported the top four causes of illness among children under five years as: malnutrition, diarrhea, malaria, and scabies. Between 1 July 1998 and 30 June 1999 4287 cases of malnutrition among children under five were reported at that health facility. In September, a supplementary feeding programme for one hundred children under five years was started with support from the DPPC and LWF. Distribution was done through regular distributions rather than through the health facility.

According to wereda officials, the total number of beneficiaries of food aid in Fedis wereda was 146,217 at the time of the mission. The wereda had requested that this number be increased to 224,475. Without waiting to hear whether this figure had been accepted, the wereda had already increased its distributions to this number, taking food from that which had been pre-positioned for the month of August. Wereda officials hoped, without apparent justification, that the food would be replenished for August’s distribution. They claimed to be distributing EGS (Employment Generation Scheme) rations at 15 kg per person per month, and free relief at 12.5 kg/person/month, although beneficiaries said that their rations had been reduced to less than 10 kg per person per month. EGS programmes have been suspended for the agricultural season to enable people to work on their farms, but people were said to be receiving the regular EGS ration for four months as payment for working on their farms. However, according to NGOs and beneficiaries, food distributions have been erratic, and ration cutting has been common. There are two distribution centres in Fedis: one at Boku (the wereda capital) and one at Fechatu.

The main reason given for the poor food situation was the mostly failed meher season of 1998. This year, the meher rains also started late, and have been erratic in some areas.

Grawa Wereda

Grawa was said to be the second worst affected wereda, particularly in the lowlands. People in lowland Grawa said that they had had to travel 75 km to the wereda capital to collect food. Because they were unable to carry it to their homes, they had to sell it.

The mission traveled approximately two hours’ drive into the lowlands from Grawa town. Residents in this area appeared weakened by malnutrition. They said that they had not had a satisfactory harvest for three years. hey also said that they had received food distributions in November, February, and May. The nearest distribution centre was said to be at Dogu, some 40 km away. Because they are not always told when the food distribution will be, they said that some people wait up to one month for food. Then, when receiving it, they said they repay loans to the townspeople with their rations rather than bring the food home. They said that they receive one 50 kg sack of grain for each household, regardless of the size of the household.

Women reported that they were preparing two meals per day for their households. They said that when they have sufficient food they eat three meals per day and provide extra helpings for their children. Husbands are served first, then children, with women eating last. Women said that normally they breastfeed for one year, but that lately they have been attempting to breastfeed for up to two years since there is no other source of milk for their children. Indicating another symptom of extreme economic hardship, the women said that the last wedding in the community had taken place three years ago. They said that households are splitting up as well, as migration has pulled men and women in different directions (the former to agricultural areas and the latter to towns).

The level of stress migration out of the area was high during the first half of the year. Local residents said that more than half of the population had left the community to look for daily labour on the irrigated farms in the highlands. At the time of the mission, these people had not returned to prepare their land, which was observed by the team to be sitting fallow.

Gursum Wereda

According to the Gursum Office of Agriculture, the wereda is divided into 8% highlands, 42% midlands, and 50% lowlands. In addition to subsistence crops, groundnuts are widely grown throughout the wereda as a cash crop. Local residents said that they had suffered from crop failure for the past four years. During 1997-98, there was reportedly excessive rain. During 1998, there was apparently an 80% crop loss. In June 1999 during the belg season, an infestation of armyworm devastated large crop areas. Many farmers lacked sufficient seed to replant, and the land was observed to be sitting fallow. In addition, wereda officials said that the drought led to more than 12,000 cattle deaths. Of the 204,000 total population, 163,822 people were estimated to be in need of food aid, but there is sufficient ration for only 130,000. The wereda calculated that it would need 2,400 MT per month until November to meet the needs of these beneficiaries.

Estimates of land under cultivation for the meher season as of the end of July were the following:

Actual 1999 figure
Ideal Yield/ha
4,896 ha
1.6 MT/ha
5,536 ha
1.2 MT/ha
2,056 ha
1.0 MT/ha
1,165 ha
1.0 MT/ha
1,691 ha
0.8 MT/ha
Ground Nut
4,244 ha
0.8 MT/ha
19,588 ha

Of this year’s expected 3,326 hectares of land planted for the belg season in Gursum, only 1,708 ha had been planted. While the annual belg yield expected is 3,650 MT, this year’s harvest was said to be a complete failure. The wereda Office of Agriculture said that half of the land that should have been replanted with short-cycle seeds was left fallow due to lack of seeds.

In Gursum, women were observed collecting tiini, or prickly pear, and marare, a leafy weed that they boil and eat alone during the rainy season. Such "famine foods" are said to be the only food available in the area. The women said that they travel up to three hours to collect the tiini, and that they collect it every day for three months during the dry season. They said that they consume marare, which does not taste very good and often causes stomach discomfort when they have nothing else to eat. When asked if they served marare with injera or grain, they said, "if we had grain we wouldn’t eat marare at all."

Unlike in Grawa, where men are said to be the first to eat their meals, in Gursum, children are the first to eat, and that the rest of the household eats together. They reported that they were eating two meals a day, but that this was their custom. They said that the main change in eating habits was that whereas in times of sufficient food supply children would eat from a separate bowl (thereby guaranteeing them an adequate share of the meal), now all family members were eating together.

The women said that they had received food distributions three times since September: once in November just before Ramadan, once during Ramadan (December) and once in June. One woman who had a family of nine said she received 60 kg of wheat. Said another woman, when asked to compare this year to previous years of food shortage, "I have never seen a year like this."

Kurfachalle Wereda

As noted above, the team visited Kurfachalle only after severely weakened residents of the wereda appeared at the Zonal Administration headquarters in Harar and requested assistance. The situation in Kurfachalle was the most alarming of any seen by the mission. Nearly all children showed signs of acute malnutrition (marasmus or kwashiorkor) as well as chronic vitamin A deficiency and scabies. Women in this area said that they no longer had any cereals in their houses and were instead purchasing the chaff residue from grinding mills (at 50 birr per 50 kg bag) to feed their households. Several houses were completely empty, the residents having sold everything they had and then migrated in search of food and money. Women in the village were able to immediately identify by name at least sixteen complete households who had migrated over the last five months and were still away.

Reasons given for the crop failure included severe armyworm infestation as well as drought. Even the normally hardy khat, the main cash crop in the area, was completely dried and unsaleable. Residents claimed that they had complained to the wereda in May about their situation but were told that they must wait for three more months for the next distribution, as food distributions were being rotated between the Peasant Associations (PAs). People in the lowlands were concerned that the highlanders, who are relatively better off, were receiving food while they were receiving nothing. In desperation, the community had elected representatives from the PA to travel three days on foot to Harar to see the zonal administration. The group reportedly consisted of the PA chairman as well as women and men from the community.

Labour and Stress Migration

As noted above, labour migration is a common strategy used by farmers to supplement their income during times of crop shortage. Men typically move to the main khat and coffee growing areas to work on the farms for daily wages. This year, due to the high number of people seeking employment, the daily rate of pay had dropped from 8 or 9 birr to 5 birr by the end of July and was reportedly still dropping.

Most stress migration to larger towns had subsided by the time of the mission, with people returning to their homes to plant their fields. Labour migration was continuing, as people were finding that they could work for daily wages in areas not more than one or two days’ walk from their homes while they awaited the maturation of their crops.

General Health Condition

No major epidemics or disease outbreaks were reported in any of the areas visited. There was an apparent need for supplementary food in some areas to treat acute cases of malnutrition. To ensure proper targeting, it is recommended that supplementary food should be distributed through the health facilities, or by the DPPC through a referral system from the local health facility to ensure that the most vulnerable are served.

The most significant health-related problem is the fact that people can no longer afford to pay for health care treatment and are therefore not coming to health care facilities for treatment. In one clinic in Gursum wereda, only four patients had come seeking treatment in a single month. This was despite the fact that such problems as scabies and diarrhea were reported to be common in the community.

A common traditional healing practice of burning large areas of the stomach and torso was observed throughout all of the weredas. Women explained that the burns are administered to both adults and children when they become sick or weak, including when their stomachs become distended (presumably from lack of food).

II. Responses to the Problem

Food distribution

During the first half of 1999, food distributions to East Hararghe were inadequate in both frequency and amount. Most people reported having received food only once or twice during this period, and rations were generally reduced by as much as 50%. The Zonal DPPD reports that between July 1998 and June 1999, 40,159 MT were delivered to East Hararghe for distribution. More than half of this, 21,275 MT was received between January and June of this year, but fell far below required levels. Wereda officials reportedly are not told how much food they will receive or when to expect deliveries. This has hampered planning of distributions and calculating of ration sizes.

In many of the most remote weredas (Fedis, etc.) food was pre-positioned for June - August distributions. Targeting was said to still be a problem, however, with ration size reduction common in many areas. Most weredas lacked the logistical resources (vehicles, fuel, per diem, etc.) to properly monitor distribution or to supervise targeting at the PA level. Local officials had only recently received word that Kersa wereda, which has been in severe food shortage for the past six months, had only received enough food for one month’s distribution and that nutritional conditions there had deteriorated significantly. Proper and regular monitoring could have alerted them to the problem prior to the development of emergency conditions.

Food distributions to the midlands and lowlands tended to be at the same level as the highlands (which are generally more accessible) despite the fact that the needs in the lower areas tended to be much higher. One reason for this may be that lowland residents are commonly considered to be pastoralists, and therefore not to be affected by the crop failure. This bias reflects a failure to understand the economic interdependencies between lowland and mid to highlanders as well as the impact of drought upon agro-pastoralist lowlanders. The failure to provide adequate food to the mid- and lowland communities most in need has led them into a precarious condition, and further crop failure during the meher season will significantly worsen their situation.

Although the zonal administration and DPPD claimed that there is no problem with reporting between different layers of government, it was evident that zonal officials had little accurate or up to date information on the conditions in the outlying areas of the zone. This can be attributed both to lack of logistical support for field visits (vehicles, fuel, and per diem) as well as a poor reporting system. Migration to the city serves a purpose in alerting zonal officials to the conditions in some of the worst affected areas, as they do not seem to receive reports from the weredas themselves. This is despite the fact that additional DPPD representatives have been assigned to work in the worst affected weredas.

NGOs working in the area

CRS has been working with the Hararghe Catholic Secretariat (HCS) on development-oriented projects which include agriculture and natural resource management, employment generation through promotion of petty trade, marketing, etc, and community based health programs. Due to the crop failure, these projects were expanded to include emergency seed provision and distribution of supplementary food in the same impact areas.

The CARE Garamuleta Rural Agricultural Development (GRAD) project operates mainly in the lowland areas of Grawa and Badenu weredas, providing employment generation schemes to help relieve the effects of the drought.

Save the Children-UK also works in the zone and is restarting its nutritional surveillance programme in both East and West Hararghe with funds it recently received from OFDA (the program was suspended a year ago due to financial constraints). The surveillance, which includes monitoring of the household food economy, is expected to provide important information for use in targeting and early warning. DPPD staff from both zones have already begun to be trained by the programme and will be involved in ongoing nutritional surveillance.

Seed provision

Nationally, it is estimated that annual seed production is 210,000 MT, while requirements are 370,000 MT. Information from Hararghe Catholic Secretariat. This leaves a shortfall of 160,000 MT even in an average year. This year, and for the coming year, the needs for additional seeds are much greater.

In many places, crop failure due to drought and armyworm infestation created the need to replant some crops, in most cases with short-cycle (and lower-yielding) varieties. Farmers who replanted late in the season should have planted pulses (chickpeas, haricot beans, etc.), sweet potato (reportedly only grown during years of extreme hardship), or short-cycle sorghum. Many farmers in the most affected areas had already exhausted their seed stocks.

Several NGOs organized emergency seed supply to the most affected areas or to their traditional impact areas. The Catholic Relief Services provided $75,000 to Hararghe Catholic Secretariat (HCS) to purchase seeds. Unfortunately, despite the fact that HCS began preparations for seed provision in December 1998, due to bureaucratic difficulties with obtaining the necessary permission from the Government to distribute seeds, the actual distribution did not occur until June. HCS has also invested in the promotion of seed development centres to ensure that the supply is both locally acceptable and adequate in quantity.

CARE reported having purchased seeds in Arssi for this emergency. The Ethiopian Agricultural Research Organization (EARO) was also said to have provided limited supplies of improved seeds.

In the lowlands of Gursum wereda, the Ministry of Agriculture provided seeds on a credit basis for distribution that were donated by Self Help International (sorghum) and Menschen fur Menschen (maize). Wheat seeds were also made available, but the number of farmers who took advantage of this scheme was said to be low as farmers doubted their ability to repay the loans at harvest time. This was said to be true even though the down payment normally charged for seeds at the time of borrowing had been waived for this emergency. There was also reportedly limited provision of fodder seeds on a credit basis, where farmers could repay their loans in kind (seeds) rather than cash.

Even with these efforts, there has been a reduction in land cultivated as a result of seed supply shortage. This will reduce the overall amount of crop meher production expected. Efforts must begin early to mobilize resources to provide seeds for next year’s belg and meher seasons. In cases where seeds are purchased locally, care must be taken to ensure that an area's seed resources are not over-depleted, thereby contributing to the food insecurity of an area that in fact produces a surplus of seeds. This was reported to have occurred in Meisso, Western Hararghe, as at least 12 NGOs purchased seeds from this area, and several months later Meisso was reported to have the highest level of malnutrition in the area.


The situation in East Hararghe is difficult to generalize about. The present nutritional condition of people living in the highlands appears to be relatively better than those in the lower altitudes. So, too, their prospects for the 1999 meher harvest also appear to be good. There are pockets of extreme food insecurity, particularly in the lowlands and midlands, but it is difficult to know the extent of these problems since they are located in isolated areas. As noted above, SCF-UK has recently received funds from the US Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance to restart its nutritional surveillance program in East Hararghe and this should help to provide a more comprehensive picture of the nutritional condition of people in these remote areas.

In ideal circumstances, it might be possible to expect a reduction in requirements by September, when the last belg and first meher crops would normally be expected. However, this scenario is unlikely this year. Some of those in the highlands of East Hararghe might be self-sufficient by December if the meher harvest is good. However, not only were the 1999 belg rains (which usually also help loosen the soil for planting of meher crops) a near total failure, but the meher rains also began late in most areas, forcing farmers to plant their crops late or to plant short-cycle, lower-yielding crops. It is therefore not expected that the problems facing the most vulnerable people in East Hararghe will be significantly reduced until at least the middle of 1999 (when the next belg crop will begin to be harvested). In the meantime, the effectiveness of food aid can be enhanced by improving field monitoring, targeting, and food distribution systems to ensure that the most vulnerable are adequately served.

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