Addis Ababa: Nov 20, 2015 – Alarm bells are ringing for a food emergency in Ethiopia. The UN says 15 million people will need help over the coming months. The government, wary of stigma and therefore hesitant to ask for help, has nevertheless said more than eight million Ethiopians need food assistance. Extra imports to stem the crisis are already pegged at more than a million tonnes of grain, beyond the government’s means. Inevitably, comment and media coverage compare the current situation with 1984 – the year Ethiopia’s notorious famine hit the headlines. Reports suggest this is the worst drought in 30 years. One declares it a “code red” drought. So how bad actually is it?
The country of close to 100 million people is huge, spread over an area of more than a million square kilometres that ranges from semi-desert to swamp to mountain ranges and fertile farmland. The weather systems and agricultural patterns are diverse and complex. Even within the higher-altitude areas of the country, the most densely populated, the typical rainy seasons vary and crops are grown at different times of the year. This year, the weather has been prone to even greater variation due to the global climate phenomenon El Niño, last seen in 1997-1998.
Ethiopia produces more than 90 percent of its own food. Last year, the cereal harvest was estimated to be 23 million tonnes, but imports in recent years averaged 1.2 million tonnes – just five percent of that. So even if 2015 and 2016 are bad years (the impact of a poor harvest is felt months later as food stocks run out), the vast majority of Ethiopian people will support themselves and eat produce from their own country. But in a giant like Ethiopia, 15 percent of the population is 15 million people – more than the entire humanitarian caseload of the Syrian crisis. An extra five percent of cereals is another 1.2 million tonnes.The costs and logistics become formidable at this scale.