Oxfam briefing note: Ethiopia - averting the crisis

News and Press Release
Originally published
Critical gaps exist in the relief supplies needed for the 11 million people affected by drought in Ethiopia. Despite encouraging responses from donors over the past few months, Oxfam remains concerned that approximately half of the food required for 2003 still needs to be pledged and delivered to avert a crisis. Latest figures from the World Food Programme indicate that there is enough food pledged by the international community to cover urgent food requirements until June 2003. However beyond that date - 11 million people in Ethiopia face an uncertain future.
Even more worrying is the pipeline for the higher protein supplementary foods that are critical in reducing malnutrition. According to the World Food Programme, only 32% of the annual requirement has been pledged so far and this will cover only half of the needs from January until June - 3.5 million of the worst affected people need these additional foodstuffs.

From Mauritania to Angola, many countries are in desperate need of food and huge demands are being placed on the international community to help on so many different fronts. But with 11 million people reliant on food being provided for them by the international community, Ethiopia is on the critical list and we must deliver.

Oxfam recognises that donors have responded positively to the scale of the crisis, but there is no margin for error and now is not the time to relax. Donors should confirm additional pledges, ensure timely delivery, and with the Government, enhance programmes attacking the root causes of the crisis.

Executive summary

During 2003, over 11 million people (17% of the population) in Ethiopia will face hunger together with an additional 3 million who are at risk later in the year. Many have not yet recovered from the effects of the 2000 drought. A national disaster can and should be averted. The systems appear to be in place and recent donor pledges have been welcome and significant with 54% of food requirements for the year having been pledged and confirmed. However, there is no room for complacency. While figures will change, pledges so far for cereals will only meet needs up to mid June 2003, and this at a reduced ration rate. For fortified blended food, only half of the requirements for January-June can be covered with current contributions. For international purchase it takes 3-6 months from pledge to delivery to communities, and the main rains normally start in June when access to remote areas will become impossible.

Such is the scale of need that any slippage can result in catastrophe for thousands of people, already on the edge of survival. It is imperative that pledges are confirmed when announced, delivered on time for distribution and if donors borrow from the reserve, that they repay on time (within 3 months). This has not always been the case. Pledges for the bulk of the remaining needs for 2003 need to be made by the end of February to ensure pre-positioning before the main rains in June.

Alongside the immediate response, the structural causes of this crisis need to be addressed in order to mitigate the devastating impact of future cyclical drought.

Extent of the drought

The crisis has been triggered by rain failure. In 2002, the early Belg rains (normally February/March) failed, preventing the planting of long cycle crop varieties. The main meher rains (normally June to September) came late and were erratic delaying or reducing the area planted under short term crops. Most, but not all, people affected are meher-dependent farmers and pastoralists in the lowlands. There has been total crop failure in many areas, leaving farmers with at best 1-2 months food supply already largely consumed. The FAO/WFP food and crop assessment shows the harvest is down by 21% compared to the last 5 year average; this is the lowest per capita harvest for more than a decade, less than 1984/5. Pastoralists have experienced the worst rainfall for 5 years with hundreds of thousands of livestock dying in July-August 2002 due to lack of water and pasture as well as related diseases. Aykilo Yosi, clan leader in Gewana, Afar, where there is almost no pasture left, says, "I cannot tell how many thousands of livestock died, but I know that the people only survived due to food aid".

It is already possible to see massive livestock losses, rising grain prices, the distress sale of household assets and livestock at depressed prices, un-seasonal migration, increased sales of firewood and charcoal, increased labour competition leading to reduced wages, and rising malnutrition (which has reached over 15% global acute malnutrition in many areas).

Compared to the droughts of 1984 and 2000

Indications are that the current drought is more severe than in 1984 and 2000. In these droughts, most farmers had more stocks with 2-3 months food supply from their own harvests; in addition, the asset base (household, land and pasture) was considerably stronger but this has since been eroded with pressure on the land, recurrent drought and lack of investment in rural development. In terms of geographic spread, the 1984 drought affected mainly the northern highland areas, while the 2000 drought affected the south-eastern pastoral areas especially Somali region, Borana in Oromiya region and parts of Southern Nations', Nationalities' and Peoples' Region (SNNPR). This drought covers well over half the country (it is less extensive in parts of the west and the far east), including areas previously unknown for food aid.

Donor response was delayed in 1984 until after the crisis had escalated. The level of preparedness for this drought is much better than in 1984 with the early warning system now fully established in Ethiopia, and the EFSR in place thanks to the support of donors, WFP and the government. However, the systems were tested in 2000 and there was still a shortfall of 150,000MT experienced in the first three months and late replenishment of the reserve drew it down to dangerous levels. In 2002 only 65% of relief food needs were met.

While the 2000 response in Ethiopia delivered and distributed a tonnage (1.3 million MT) approaching the 2003 projection for at that time a population of 10 million, many more areas have to be reached this time, and people are still recovering their assets lost in 2000. The 2000 response also increased from 8 to 10 million people by July of that year after the failure of the belg harvest when the annual food requirement increased from 900,000MT to 1.3 million MT. The same escalation in numbers could well happen in 2003 since projected need assumes a normal 2003 belg harvest, but if this harvest fails it could put more than the extra 3 million currently at risk but not targeted in need of food aid.

Food and other assistance requirements

According to the government and the UN, at least 1.4 million MT of food is required for Ethiopia to help feed 11.3 million people during the year. Since the December 2002 appeal, the quantities required on a monthly basis are now clearer; peak need will be in April - June 2003. The food needs of the additional 3 million at risk will be identified during 2003 but they will probably require food relief late in the year. Confirmed pledges so far are encouraging, covering 54% of food requirements. Cereals should be available until mid-June, but 590,000MT is still needed for the for the rest of the year - which is more than is actually distributed on an annual basis.

Even more worrying is the pipeline for higher protein supplementary foods that are critical in reducing malnutrition. Only 32% of the annual requirement has been pledged so far and this will cover only half of the needs from January until June. It is estimated that 3.5 million of the worst affected people will need these additional foodstuffs - higher protein food. Without these malnutrition could increase and people will be much more vulnerable to illness. It is crucial that these foodstuffs are received and distributed on a timely basis otherwise the crisis could deepen.

The EFSR has a cereal stock of 124,175MT with expected repayments of 137,190MT before the end of February, while the food requirement per month is 131,768MT in February alone rising incrementally to a peak in June of 182,019MT. Scheduled repayments are not expected to reach these levels; according to current pledge and shipment schedules, by March, repayments are expected to be as low as 56,317MT. Full EFSR figures are not available beyond March but the current assessment is that the cereal pipeline will be sufficient until mid-June, though based on a reduced ration (83% of normal rations). In the food delivery process, considerable direct delivery outside the reserve system is required. The system also depends on timely replenishment of the reserve from loans taken out on existing pledges and problems were experienced in this area in 2000.

Recommendations - immediate response

  • Donors should confirm existing provisional pledges where pending, and commit further pledges by the end of February to meet the remaining requirements for 2003 and allow necessary pre-positioning before the June rains. Donors should also significantly increase pledge and delivery of blended and supplementary foods to ensure availability of appropriate rations and a balanced food basket. The Government of Ethiopia also needs to make additional contributions, and ensure the distribution of aid resources to all affected areas according to need.

  • Donors should ensure delivery of pledges on time, and if they have borrowed from the Emergency Food Security Reserve they should repay within a maximum of 3 months.

  • Food aid must be provided in ways that link to long-term development such as through food for work (for example water harvesting), and community managed distribution. Introduction of imported grain into the market should be mindful of potential price disruption and local purchase should be encouraged where timely delivery can be assured.

  • To strengthen the ability of communities to cope with drought and to offset food requirements, immediate assistance is required in agriculture and livestock - in particular veterinary services together with support for livestock restocking and feed provision. Seeds need to be purchased now for the upcoming planting seasons. Immediate assistance in water, health and nutrition is also required.
Structural conditions exacerbating the crisis

Most agree that the crisis cannot be solved by short-term food aid alone, especially given that there is a predictable number needing food aid every year - in Ethiopia 4-5 million people receive food aid annually. Structural issues have to be tackled concurrently especially through long-term investment:

Poverty: It is widely acknowledged that poverty - which is both a cause and effect of food insecurity - has risen since 1984. World Bank research supports this, though the recent PRSP indicates some improvement in the late 1990s. Repeated and frequent shocks have let to a spiralling depletion of assets and increased vulnerability. Meanwhile, official aid has dropped by over 20% between 1995 and 2000. Despite strong growth in recent years, Ethiopia remains one of the poorest countries in the world in terms of GDP per capita.

Rural investment: There has been insufficient investment in rural development, especially in water and other natural resource management, rural markets and infrastructure. There has been little diversification, with the focus almost entirely on small holder agriculture despite its inherent risk and within this an excessive emphasis on intensification via inputs.

Land pressure: There is a persistent problem of land insecurity, perceived or actual, and small landsize with the average holding around one hectare. 85% of the population lives by cultivating the land. All land is government owned. Results of studies indicate that farmers are not encouraged to invest in or conserve their land due to the insecurity of land tenure. Related to this is growing population pressure (growing at 2.7% per year, one of the highest in Africa) that contributes to diminishing farm size and degradation; by comparison, agricultural production has not kept pace and is lower than it was 25 years ago, now at 2.5% per annum.

Trade and debt: The drought has had direct impact on a number of coffee farmers in the south and west whose production has declined by 20-30% this year due to the drought. Coffee prices have declined by 70% in the last four years, and debt servicing amounted to $105 million in 2001/2 out of a total debt of almost $6 billion equivalent to Ethiopia's entire GDP. 60% of national export revenue comes from coffee. Through this collapse in the coffee price, the government is losing twice as much as it gained in recent interim debt relief - itself subject to conditions before its full release. Within Ethiopia, there is little management of the rural market so that surplus production can be used in times of deficit instead of resulting in price collapse that only worsens vulnerability, and leaves farmers unable to repay loans. Instead, in the 2001 bumper harvest 6 million people still received food aid and the price fell.

HIV/AIDS contributes to increased vulnerability. Ethiopia has the fifth largest number of people living with HIV/AIDS in Africa with the first case identified in 1986 and has a prevalence rate now of 6.6% of the adult population. There are 2.3 million HIV infected people and over 1 million AIDS related orphans. While not a major cause of this food crisis, HIV/AIDS represents an obvious area needing investment if future crises are to be managed. Also distress migration will normally increase infection rates and such migration has been reported in some areas.

Recommendations - longer-term response to commence now

  • While not reducing overall donor commitment, donors and the government should encourage multi-annual planning to target predictable need with predictable resources to provide safety nets to those chronically food insecure.

  • Donors and the government need to invest more in rural development especially in water and other natural resource management, rural markets and infrastructure and pastoral development. As well as agricultural diversification, non-farm economic activity needs to be encouraged through bolstering rural markets and raising demand.

  • Measures need to be taken to reduce pressure on the land through family planning, voluntary resettlement and livelihood diversification. A public and participatory debate on land tenure is required. Radically increased resources are needed for environmental management and awareness raising.

  • An international coffee rescue plan needs to restore fair prices and revenue to the Ethiopian national economy. The Ethiopian government should implement measures to manage the grain market so that people are less vulnerable to price fluctuation.
Oxfam International has been working in Ethiopia since 1973 and works in many areas of Ethiopia including Afar, Amhara, Benshangul, Oromiya, SNNPR, Somali and Tigray Regions. It works both with local partners and also implements operational programs.

In Ethiopia, Oxfam International is focusing on humanitarian response and preparedness, natural resource management, access to land and HIV/AIDS. It is committed to addressing the longer term causes of the crisis and also responding to the immediate humanitarian needs. It is supporting food distributions in Amhara, Oromiya, SNNPR and Tigray Regions and has also undertaken environmental health and veterinary support in Afar and Oromiya and water supply work in Afar and Somali Regions.

In its longer term program, it is working on rural development programs, including food and income security and microfinance, as well as small-scale irrigation, animal health, water and sanitation and environmental protection. It is also supporting institutional building, human rights, gender and peacebuilding programmes.