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Ethiopia - After so much economic progress, why can't Ethiopia handle drought?

Summary: Despite registering high levels of economic development for over a decade, Ethiopia is once again asking the international community to help it respond to drought.

Ethiopia just can't seem to escape the blight of drought, no matter how hard it tries. Despite massive economic growth alongside decades of capacity building and developing drought coun- ter measures, Ethiopia faces another humanitarian crisis as one of the worst droughts in living memory afflicts the Horn of Africa.

At the beginning of the year 5.6m Ethiopians were identified as needing immediate food as- sistance, primarily in the south and southeast of the country. That number recently rose to 8.5m.

This year's joint response by the government and interna- tional partners is proving less decisive than last year's effort that assisted more than 10m people, when food aid poured in and the government spent hundreds of millions of its own money, averting a major hu- manitarian catastrophe.

"The current situation is un- precedented," says Sam Wood, Save the Children's humanitar- ian director in Ethiopia. "The third rainy season in a row failed, so it's a cumulative effect of failed rains hitting vulner- able communities. Ethiopia has made lots of progress, but when you have a problem of this sort of scale, duration and scope, any system is going to be over- whelmed."

Meeting the bill

The current humanitarian bill to meet the basic needs of af- fected Ethiopians is $1.2bn. So far $736m has been allocated by international organisations and the government, according to the United Nations. However, not all of this has been received yet; there is always a procure- ment time lag.

Last year, the Ethiopian government spent an unprece- dented $700m on drought relief, but so far it has only committed $147m this year, indicating an overstretched budget.

"The government has many development demands," says Mitiku Kassa, Ethiopia's state minister of agriculture and head of its National Disaster Risk Management Commis- sion. "If we divert too many funds to humanitarian needs it will be difficult to continue growth, so we have to request support from the international community.''

But the aid industry is strug- gling to cope due to longstand- ing crises in Syria, Iraq, Soma- lia, South Sudan and Yemen.

"Aid budgets from donor countries have already com- mitted most of their funding responding to other conflicts or disasters for this year, and this resulted in less funding for drought-affected people in Ethiopia," says Geno Teofilo, regional communications ad- viser for the Norwegian Refu- gee Council.

"There is also donor fatigue regarding droughts in East Africa," he adds.

Others note how droughts don't seize the public imagina- tion -- meaning less motivation to delve into one's pockets -- to the same extent as disasters like earthquakes and hurricanes.

Overwhelmed by numbers, coupled with diminishing funds, aid agencies began cut- ting food rations and faced run- ning out of funds entirely this July until last-minute donations from the UK, EU and US guar- anteed food shipments through to the end of the year.

For now, death on a large scale has been limited to ani- mals, though infant malnu- trition rates are increasing to dangerous levels, accompanied by reports of cholera outbreaks.

Severe situation

The government has faced accu- sations that it played down the severity of the crisis to keep the country from looking bad internationally, conscious of doing damage to the narrative of Ethiopia's remarkable eco- nomic renaissance over the last decade. This has seen it become one of the world's fastest grow- ing economies, enticing foreign investors and Ethiopia's vast diaspora.

"Since 2015 we have been working with international aid agencies, making assess- ments together and disclosing the numbers of beneficiaries," Kassa says. "So nothing can be hidden. The government has recognised how serious the situ- ation is."

Additional pressures on the government include the inter- community conflict that broke out in September between eth- nic Oromo and Somalis in the Oromia and Somali regions. It became unsafe for smaller aid agencies to move around the region.

On top of this, Ethiopia hosts over 838,000 refugees from neighbouring Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, Eritrea and other crisis-hit countries.

Meanwhile, although the Ethiopian government felt con- fident enough to end a state of emergency earlier this year, fol- lowing more than a year of pro- tests and bloodshed, discontent hasn't disappeared.

Heaving below the surface are grievances over land real- location and ethnic federalism -- both factors during recent clashes in the Somali region -- as well as government corrup- tion, lack of jobs, opportunities, freedom of expression and po- litical transparency.

Continuing pressure on resources

While both the UK and US -- two of the biggest donors -- have continued supporting Ethiopia's humanitarian needs so far, their governments face continuing pressure to reduce overseas aid. The Trump administration's 2018 budget blueprint prom- ises to slash US contributions to international aid institutions.

Aid organisation heads in Ethiopia say the public must be kept aware about the drought to raise funds to pay for essential resources.

"A humanitarian need is a humanitarian need even if it is not as dramatic as other disasters," Wood says. "If we don't scale up and sustain the response, then everything that came before comes to naught."

At time of writing there were also concerns that the deyr sea- sonal rains, which account for up to 35% of annual rainfall in the southeast, could be below normal, due to the continu- ing El NiAaAaAeAeo ocean-warmi phenomenon causing erratic precipitation.

Yet even if resources can be found to cover this drought and its fallout, another issue remains how to build capacity and livelihood security for the future amid climate change and more frequent droughts.

As a result, both the Ethiopian government and United Nations food agencies are in- creasingly focusing on greater investment in long-term activ- ities that strengthen people's resilience to drought and the impacts of climate shocks.

In Ethiopia's northern drought-prone Tigray region, irrigation schemes, fruit nurser- ies and health centres are boost- ing productivity, increasing in- comes and improving nutrition so that rural people can better withstand natural disasters.

"The government's goal is to create climate resilience within the context of sustainable devel- opment," Kassa says. "Then one day we will be able to deal with drought without any appeals."

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Publication:African Business (Al Bawaba (Middle East) Ltd.)
Geographic Code:6ETHI
Date:Dec 18, 2017
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