Ethiopia: March rainy season “critical” for southern pastoralists

There are renewed fears that some pastoralists in southern Ethiopia, already at the limit of their reserves after years of almost unbroken drought, will struggle to survive any failure of the main seasonal March–May rains.

An Ethiopian Red Cross Society (ERCS) assessment team, which recently returned to Addis Ababa after a ten-day mission to the far south, reported that thanks to the combined efforts of the government, United Nations, Red Cross Red Crescent and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), there have been no human fatalities in the food security crisis.

Like the Kenyan government, the authorities here say they are determined no one will be allowed to starve in the current drought, anywhere in the country. But humanitarian workers stress that relief resources in remote areas are finite, and even extraordinarily resilient lowland people are beginning to exhaust their coping strategies.

Chance to recover

“People never had the chance to recover from 2006, the last time the drought really intensified,” explained Gedlu Beyene, ERCS assessment team leader.

“Last year the ‘terms of trade’ pastoralists face worsened dramatically,” says Beyene. “As the cost of food shot up, the price a live bull would fetch, for example, dropped from 4,000 birr to 1,500.

“For a pastoralist family, trading cattle for food just to survive, that’s a disaster.”

Race against time

The ERCS and the new International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) team in Addis Ababa are engaged in a race against time to begin the first food aid distributions in four districts of southern Oromiya and Somali regions before the end of February.

“We have to work against the background of a very modest response from donors to the international appeal we launched last month,” said IFRC head of operations Roger Bracke.

“Thanks to a number of National Red Cross and Red Crescent Society donors and underwriting from the IFRC, we’re now committed to one distribution hub serving 150,000 people in the worst-affected areas,” he added.

Provide a safeguard

“But we need to do more, much more, and we need to do it quickly if we’re to provide any safeguard against the likelihood of the drought continuing.This March’s ganna rains will be critical for pastoralists.”

The IFRC has procured Ethiopian-grown food for the first of its planned distributions by ERCS volunteers, due for delivery in three weeks: in effect, its humanitarian “pipeline” is now open at one end.

ERCS experts, with IFRC logistical support, will spend the next few weeks checking warehouse facilities in remote areas, as well as secondary transport from the operation’s hub in Negele, 600 kilometres south of Addis Ababa.

Recruited and trained

New volunteers will also be recruited and trained and, finally, beneficiaries registered with the help of local woreda (district) elders in Liben, Goro-Dola and Wadera, in Oromiya region, and Udat, in Somali region.

This operation differs from the Red Cross Red Crescent distributions in the more densely populated Wolaita zone last year in one key respect: food will initially be delivered not to the actual distribution point but to the Negele hub. From there it will be taken by the ERCS to some 20 carefully targeted distribution points in the remote outback up to 100 kilometres away.

“The logistical challenges are greater, but so is the potential impact,” according to Luc Dumoulin, the veteran logistician seconded by the IFRC to the Horn of Africa operation.

Edge of the crisis

“Doing it this way we hope to at least blunt the edge of the crisis in one area.”

The IFRC plans at last three other hubs, donor funds permitting.

Complicating the picture in Ethiopia is a recently published assessment of the 2008 meher (September–February) harvest. A joint study by the Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Food Programme estimated the cereal and pulse harvest in the “peasant farm sector” at just over 17 million tonnes – about ten per cent above the official estimate for the year before.

But Ethiopia, the study added, is still left with an overall cereal deficit estimated at 316,000 tonnes that will have to be covered by “commercial and food aid imports”.

Agricultural performance

In addition, behind the national figure was an overall agricultural performance “slightly better” in the western zones but “slightly worse” in the eastern zones – broadly speaking, the drought-stricken areas.

The Ethiopian government and its humanitarian partners in the country, meanwhile, have now reduced from 6.4 to 4.9 million the number of people requiring emergency food aid this year outside the government’s own safety net programme.

An additional 1.2 million mothers and children under five will require supplementary feeding.

However, Ethiopian officials – presenting the “inter-agency assessment” for 2009 to donors and diplomats last Friday – stressed the humanitarian number could go up again if the March rainy season is poor or fails altogether.

Food prices

“Food prices have also fallen now,” says Bracke, “but they’re still relatively high and this came too late to help lowland pastoralist communities whose reserves have gone and whose animals are virtually unsalable because of drought.”

Bracke also emphasizes the IFRC has set its sights beyond mere food aid, which is “relevant in the short run, but just postpones the crisis, unless it is accompanied by efforts to generate income to purchase food once the aid dries up.

“Food aid alone is hardly ever a solution to severe malnutrition – almost always the result of a cluster of factors. The funding which is available so far does not allow us even to even start tackling root causes – even for some of the most critically at risk.”

Climate change impacts

The regions selected by the Red Cross Red Crescent for the food relief operation, Oromiya and Somali, were among four found by a 2008 study to be most vulnerable in the country to the humanitarian impacts of climate change. They lack all-weather roads, for example, which enable farmers to get produce out to market and bring in pesticides and fertilizers.

The other at-risk regions highlighted in the study, by the International Food Policy Research Institute and the Ethiopian Development Research Institute, were Afar and Tigray.

Meanwhile Kenya’s President Kibaki said earlier this month that food shortages in the north of his country constituted a national emergency and appealed for assistance from abroad.

Kibaki said the food crisis was mainly due to drought. But last year’s post-election violence, which disrupted the planting season in Rift Valley province – Kenya’s main crop-producing area, and high food-price inflation were also to blame.

Launching its own national fund-raising initiative worth more than 22.5 million US dollars last week, the Kenya Red Cross Society said the country was experiencing “a major drought affecting almost all regions”.(By Alex Wynter in Negele, southern, Ethiopia)(Read more)