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Ethiopia’s drought, Ethiopia’s doubt

By Jacey Fortin
Posted on Tuesday, 19 April 2016 15:16

Though rains began to fail in early 2015, the alarm bells did not ring in earnest until October. Ethiopia’s government is trying to industrialise this vastly rural country, but the farmers who make up about 80% of the population remain vulnerable to changing weather patterns.

This is our worst drought, but it doesn’t translate into the same kind of disaster that followed 1984 because Ethiopia is now better prepared

Last year, the Pacific Ocean water-warming phenomenon called El Niño led to disappointing rains in many of the country’s eastern areas. By October, widespread crop failure was impossible to ignore.

This has been Ethiopia’s worst drought in decades – even worse than the one that catapulted the country into the spotlight as a poster child for aid in 1984. But the Ethiopian government is tired of that story.

Its officials prefer to promote the country’s more recent reputation for double-digit economic growth, construction booms and foreign investment. On the other hand, non-governmental organisations and the government’s development aid partners are sounding more worried about the crisis.

John Graham, the country director for Save the Children International, which recently issued an urgent call for $245m in funding to prevent a potentially disastrous break in the food aid pipeline, explains: “Unless we do everything in our power to deal with this very enormous drought, it will result in massive problems and suffering.”

The government’s tone has been more measured. Officials point out that this drought is not a famine, in part because of early responses like its allocation of $272m last year and $109m so far in 2016.

They also note that resilience has been at the heart of the government’s development plan for years, most notably with the Productive Safety Net Programme (PNSP), which delivers aid to chronically food-insecure communities in exchange for labour.

An assessment in December, carried out by the government and international agencies, put the number of people in need of emergency food aid at 10.2 million. The government says that of the $1.4bn requested to address this crisis, 46% has already been allocated.

Another 7.9 million people have also been identified as beneficiaries for this year’s round of the PSNP, which is funded separately. Foreign aid workers generally agree that the government has been proactive.

But they emphasise that this is a slow-growing crisis. The worst season for food insecurity does not typically begin until mid-year, and it is difficult to attract donors’ attention with crises like Syria competing for funding.

Government spokesman Getachew Reda argues that the drought will not seriously threaten economic growth, in part because other sectors have been less affected by the changing weather.

“This is our worst drought, but it doesn’t translate into the same kind of disaster that followed 1984 because Ethiopia is now better prepared,” he adds. “We would love to see a situation where people have a clear understanding of the situation on the ground that is not based on sensationalism.”

That would mean that the government, which often represses critical voices, would have to provide access to journalists and researchers interested in ensuring that the official narrative is grounded in truth. ● Jacey Fortin in Addis Ababa

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