Looming Ethiopia famine highlights vulnerability to climate change

Aid agencies warn food could run out for millions as failed rains stoked by El Nino ruin crops in east Africa


Drought conditions have killed livestock in Ethiopia as the country enters a humanitarian crisis (Pic: Abiy Getahun/Oxfam)

By Alex Pashley

Food aid will run out for over 10 million Ethiopians by May, according to aid agencies, which fear a repeat of the horrendous famines of the 1970s and 80s.

Chronic drought has sapped vast tracts of the north, central and eastern highlands, hitting crops and livestock as rain patterns have shifted. More than eight in ten people depend on rain-fed agriculture, according to Oxfam.

Intensified by El Nino, the dry spell brings into sharp relief the vulnerability of the continent to a changing climate. The UN climate science panel has marked its “low adaptive capacity” to heat waves and water scarcity if carbon emissions do not fall.

“It’s like watching a disaster take place in slow motion,” Wolfgang Jamann, the head of charity CARE International said on Tuesday.

“The impact has been devastating for vulnerable people in the South Pacific and across southern and Eastern Africa, but nowhere is the outlook more troubling than in Ethiopia right now.”

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Countries in the Horn of Africa including Kenya and Somalia have suffered, while to the south Zimbabwe is battling food insecurity.

In Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa, leading African academics gathered this week to ponder the continent’s resilience and adaptation to a warmer planet.

Over a hundred delegates pored over research on breeding tougher crops, restoring drylands and launching community forests at the three-day symposium.

Moving away from susceptible crops like maize and wheat to sturdier cassava and groundnuts is winning support.

Save the Children: Ethiopia drought a ‘wake-up call’ to futureproof crops

Alexandre Meybeck, who leads on climate change at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization told Climate Home that these were “important adaptation options”.

“Seed systems (plant breeders, multipliers, distributers) are needed to enable farmers to access to the seeds they need, with knowledge transfer and sharing mechanisms, such as farmer field schools.” Whole food chains may need to shift and communities learn new recipes, he added.

The 48 least developed countries, which includes Ethiopia, won more funding from rich countries for adaptation last year at UN climate talks. An estimated US$1 trillion is needed to carry out their climate plans for the next 15 years.

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