Whether or not there’s food on the tables of millions of families in Ethiopia is dependent primarily on one thing: the weather.
Separated from the sea by Eritrea, Djibouti and Somalia, this landlocked country in the Horn of Africa is home to more than 96 million people, almost all of whom rely on rain-fed agriculture, including crops and livestock, for the food and income they need to survive.
We’ve been on the ground in Ethiopia since 2004 helping families access more food, earn steady incomes, build resilience against unpredictable weather patterns and survive emergencies like the 2011 hunger crisis, when drought put 12 million people in the region at risk of starvation.
Now, as the country copes with yet another dry spell, get the facts about what makes Ethiopia so vulnerable to these chronic disasters and learn how we’re working to help communities overcome them once and for all.
What happened after the 2011 drought and hunger crisis?
Weather patterns gradually returned back to normal and, after a couple of good rains, most families were able to recover their assets — animals, seeds, tools — and move forward.
Even before the crisis, the country was making progress. Thanks to significant investment by the Ethiopian government, it has continued to experience great economic growth and community improvements like roads, electricity and other public services.
Ethiopia has also made headway in many development goals: Compared to 15 years ago, poverty and child malnutrition rates are down, and life expectancy, maternal health and enrollment in primary education are up.
But there is still a long way to go — tens of millions of people continue to live below the poverty line and struggle to access the food they need to survive. And, as we’re seeing currently, much of the country’s health and stability remains extremely vulnerable to drought and other natural disasters.
What’s going on now?
Both of Ethiopia’s regular rainy seasons — the March to May belg and July to September kirempt rains — failed last year. Late, intermittent and below-average rainfall have led to the most severe drought in Ethiopia in over 50 years.
Now, parts of the country, especially the northern and eastern regions, are experiencing food shortages due to extensive loss of crops and livestock. Around 10 million people are currently in need of food assistance.
As the effects of the drought spread, we’re working to help families prepare and cope in the southern and eastern parts of the country, where we’ve been working for many years, including the very dry, harsh and hard-hit regions of Sitti and Afar.
Why does this keep happening?
More than 80 percent of Ethiopia’s population lives in rural areas that are completely dependent on rain-fed agriculture for their livelihood, whether it’s growing crops, raising livestock, selling seeds and tools, or other jobs linked to the industry. The country’s economy is largely based on these activities as well.
And the belg and kirempt rainy seasons are what keep them functioning.
But increasingly erratic rainfall and extended periods of drought, due in part to climate change and other unpredictable weather patterns like El Niño, make it difficult for much of the population to consistently grow food, keep animals healthy and earn money.
How can the weather have such a large impact?
When rain doesn’t fall as expected, farmers can’t always grow the quality or quantity of crops they need to provide for their families, meaning they don’t produce what they need to eat or what they would normally sell at the local market for income.
During drought, water for drinking and daily tasks becomes limited or nonexistent.
And dry land doesn’t produce the pasture animals need to graze, either, which leads many to get sick, stop producing milk and die. Without healthy animals, herding families have no source of milk, meat or income.
Changing and unpredictable weather patterns also, at times, cause heavier rains than usual, which can overflow rivers and trigger flooding that completely wipes out crops, shelters, livestock and land.
Without any other options to support themselves, people are often forced to skip meals or sell their belongings to survive. Others abandon their homes and land altogether in search of food.
Can people buy more food?
It’s difficult. Many people are already poor and have little to no financial safety net to get them through an emergency.
Drought and other crises significantly decrease food supplies in farming areas, too, because fewer crops have been grown and harvested. What is at hand then becomes more expensive, making it hard for already-struggling families to purchase what they need even if the stock is there.
And because agriculture is Ethiopia’s primary and most viable source of income, livelihoods that aren’t dependent on it in some way are rare in most parts of the country. When the agricultural industry is weak, it impacts the purchasing power and stability of entire communities, not just the people who grow crops or raise animals.
How do families cope, then?
Traditional bank savings accounts are uncommon. Herders, however, have savings and investments in their livestock: camels, sheep, goats or cows. That’s why we focus on helping herders keep their animals healthy and connect them to markets where they can sell them for income when they need to.
When it’s going to be difficult to keep an entire herd healthy and fed — during a drought, for example — herders can earn top dollar and then be better equipped to care for their core breeding animals if they sell a share of their livestock before it’s too late.
Other rural families are often forced to send someone to the city to try to earn a little money as a day laborer, like a bricklayer or home cleaner, when they’re struggling to make ends meet.
And almost 8 million people regularly receive support through a food aid program, run by the Ethiopian government and development partners, that provides food and cash to families who face chronic hunger.
Who is most at risk?
The majority of the population is vulnerable to food shortages because so many of them rely on regular rains for their food and livelihoods: According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the main kirempt rains feed 80-85 percent of the country.
Herders are slightly more equipped to withstand emergencies because they have investments in their animals. Farmers, or families who already don’t have enough to eat, more quickly plunge into crisis because they have fewer assets to help them manage setbacks.
And people with higher nutritional needs, like children, pregnant women or breastfeeding mothers, are especially impacted when they don’t have enough food. Hunger can have long-term, disastrous effects on the health and development of these populations.
What can be done?
For over a decade we’ve been working to help agricultural families in Ethiopia build resilience to recurring hunger, recognizing that their long-term stability depends on their ability to adapt to climate change, maintain healthy, productive livestock, and improve their overall nutrition.
Our work includes teaching local health facilities to treat malnutrition and educate families about health, breastfeeding and balanced diets.
We also connect herders to markets where they can purchase fodder and medicine for their animals when necessary, and help train local veterinarians to ensure rural communities have access to good, year-round livestock care.
In response to the drought we’ve supplied herders with animal feed, scaled up training and supplies for veterinarians, and have been linking commercial livestock traders with herders who need to sell animals in hard-hit areas of the country.
We’ve restarted our mobile health clinic program to provide emergency food, medical care and malnutrition treatment in hard-to-reach, remote communities.
And to help the Ethiopian government overcome these cycles of crisis for the long term, we’ve partnered with them to manage their early warning systems network, which monitors things like rainfall and market information to predict food shortages before they happen.
Despite the challenges of today, we see a stronger tomorrow in Ethiopia. We’re focused on building more resilient communities that can work their way out of harm by forging healthy families, establishing strong markets and strengthening the capacity of local governments to appropriately respond to climate risks now and in the future.
How you can help
You are an important part of this progress. Your support helps provide nutritional and agricultural solutions to keep families from going hungry in the world's toughest places. Donate today ▸