Food crisis in ethiopia: where green pastures wither

The country is prospering, yet millions of people are threatened by hunger. This is not only due to the climate, but also to political mistakes.

Food aid supplies are distributed in the Amhara region. Photo: reuters

Eight years ago, in the small town of Lalibela in the Ethiopian highlands, people lined up to receive food aid from the local government and the U.S. aid agency USAID. That was at the height of the rainy season. Now, residents of Lalibela, famous for its rock-hewn churches dating back thousands of years, are again lining up for food – the result of severe drought in recent months.

For Ethiopia’s government, the new food crisis is embarrassing. Visitors are therefore politely discouraged by the authorities from photographing those in need. The East African country has been showing growth rates of over 10 percent a year for a decade. It sees itself as the coming economic "tiger" of Africa, leaving behind the misery of times past.

But food security for the rapidly growing population is not keeping pace. In 2003, the last major hunger crisis year, 16 million of Ethiopia’s 72 million people were dependent on food aid – more than one-fifth. In 2016, as Ethiopia’s population grows to more than 100 million, that number is about 10 million – one in 10. That’s a lot of progress, but it’s still not enough.

The central Ethiopian highlands of the Tigray and Amhara regions, which are actually rain-fed and fertile, are currently suffering particularly from the lack of rain. The authorities blame the global climate phenomenon El Nino. Local interlocutors point out that this drought has struck for two years in a row.

Ethiopia has had growth rates of over 10 percent for a decade

In Ethiopia’s many reservoirs, from which hydroelectric plants supply the country with 90 percent of its electricity, levels are so low that power is out almost every day. Without electricity, there is no running water either, and the productivity of the many new small industries in and around the capital Addis Ababa is plummeting. In the countryside, thousands of square kilometers of green pastureland are turning into brown desert, with consequences for the oryx-antelope population and also the Gelada baboons in the mountains.

The "green famine region

No one is talking about famine yet. But preparations for the emergency have stalled. About 300 kilometers south of the capital Addis Ababa lies the Wolayta region. It is described as a "green hunger region" because, although it is green and fertile, far too little is invested in productive agriculture.

Food stocks are to be built up there, brought in by trucks from other parts of the country. The head of a trucking company complains that 100 of his trucks are stuck empty in the distribution centers of Wolayta and Wereta. There is no coordination between the authorities, the transport companies and the UN World Food Program (WFP), from which the food comes.

The local weekly Fortune reports that the disagreements began in neighboring Djibouti, whose port is the main transshipment point for imports from landlocked Ethiopia: The port there is hopelessly overcrowded, with ships bobbing in front of the quay while transporters in Ethiopia wait for goods.

All this has little to do with El Nino. There are structural problems. Every year, several million Ethiopians need food aid because the harvests are not enough, even when it has rained well. One third of the Ethiopian population is considered undernourished. The reasons are well known, experts say: The ruling elite does not invest in modernizing agriculture, but instead subsidizes wheat and sugar imports. This keeps the capital quiet, but does little for the country as a whole.

In many places in Africa, the rains came late in 2015 or failed to materialize at all. In parts of eastern and southern Africa, the situation remains critical.

In Ethiopia, 10.2 million people are now in need of food aid. The U.N. is calling for $1.4 billion to be donated to Ethiopia. That’s the third-largest aid program after Syria and Yemen. The U.N. agricultural agency FAO is asking for $13 million to immediately help 600,000 farmers who have had to eat their seeds and sell their livestock. Without replacements, there is a threat of further crop failures.

A major crisis is also looming in southern Africa, where large regions have seen the lowest rainfall in 35 years.

Ethiopia has no private land ownership. Farmers only have rights to use state land. The government says this protects small farmers from displacement by large landowners. But the state itself keeps relocating rural people to free up space for foreign agricultural investors and the cultivation of export products. At the same time, small farmers cannot invest in land because they cannot take out loans due to lack of ownership. Because people are uncertain whether the state will evict them, and because population pressure is so great, "small farmers find themselves in a downward spiral of declining productivity," writes the Addis Standard newspaper.

Everything under control

The government sees things differently. Government spokesman Getachew Reda tells the taz that the situation is under control: "We have early warning systems that allow us to quickly identify developments in rural areas," he says. Priorities in recent years, he says, have been better water management and the expansion of local irrigation systems.

As for the looming hunger crisis, Ethiopia has strategic reserves, the spokesman says: "When we need something, we distribute from our reserves and don’t wait for international partners. But the WFP has borrowed several hundred thousand tons from our strategic reserve because their aid appeal is not funded." According to the UN, $1.4 billion is needed this year to avoid famine.

The Ethiopian government says it has purchased $381 million in food aid in 2015, and another $100.9 million tender is underway. But the government spokesman admits that 54 percent of the needs for this year have not yet been secured. "The international community is trying hard," Reda said. "But donors everywhere are tired."

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