This article was originally published February 11, 2016; it was updated May 20, 2018 to reflect the latest information.
Whether there’s food on the tables of millions of families in Ethiopia is dependent primarily on one thing: the weather.
Separated from the sea by Eritrea, Djibouti and Somalia, this landlocked country in the Horn of Africa is home to more than 102 million people, almost all of whom rely on rain-fed agriculture, including crops and livestock, for the food and income they need to survive.
This heavy reliance on agriculture has left families vulnerable to hunger for decades, and recent droughts, exacerbated by other hazards like flash floods, extreme poverty, conflict and displacement, have fueled another persistent food crisis that has millions of people in its grip. Today, the United Nations reports nearly 8 million people do not have the food they need, and 3.5 million children are malnourished.
We’ve been on the ground helping families fight hunger in Ethiopia since 2004 helping families access more food, earn steady incomes, build resilience against unpredictable weather patterns and survive emergencies like the 2011 hunger crisis, when drought put 13 million people in the region at risk of starvation.
Now, as the country copes with yet another dry spell, get the facts about hunger in Ethiopia and learn how to help communities overcome it once and for all.
What was the 2011 drought and hunger crisis?
In 2011 and 2012, severe regional drought in the Horn of Africa hit at a time when inadequate rainfall and inflation were already keeping people from growing or accessing food. Armed conflict worsened the situation by making it even more difficult for families to cope and survive. Around 13 million people in Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya faced starvation, with a famine declared in Somalia in July 2011.
While emergency assistance prevented widespread fatalities, tens of thousands of people still lost their lives. Millions more were displaced from their homes and saw their livelihoods decimated.
What happened after the 2011 crisis?
Weather patterns gradually returned back to normal and, after a couple of good rains, most families were able to recover their assets — animals, seeds, tools — and move forward.
Even before the crisis, the country was making progress. Thanks to significant investment by the Ethiopian government, it has continued to experience great economic growth and community improvements like roads, electricity and other public services.
Ethiopia has also made headway in many development goals: Compared to 15 years ago, poverty and child malnutrition rates are down, and life expectancy, maternal health and enrollment in primary education are up.
But there is still a long way to go — tens of millions of people continue to live below the poverty line and struggle to access the food they need to survive. And, as we’re seeing currently, much of the country’s health and stability remains extremely vulnerable to drought and other natural disasters.
What’s going on now?
Both of Ethiopia’s regular rainy seasons — the March to May belg and July to September kirempt rains — failed in 2015.
This late, intermittent and below-average rainfall led to the most severe drought in Ethiopia in over 50 years, causing extensive loss of crops and livestock and food shortages in parts of the country, especially the northern and eastern regions. Around 10 million people were in need of food assistance at that time.
Below-average rainfall in 2016 and 2017 has caused the hunger crisis in Ethiopia to remain extremely dire. Nearly 8 million people still require emergency support to get the food they need.
As the effects of the drought spread, we’re working to help families prepare and cope in the southern and eastern parts of the country, where we’ve been working for many years, including the very dry, harsh and hard-hit regions of Sitti and Afar.
Why does this keep happening?
More than 80 percent of Ethiopia’s population lives in rural areas that are completely dependent on rain-fed agriculture for their livelihood, whether it’s growing crops, raising livestock, selling seeds and tools, or other jobs linked to the industry. The country’s economy is largely based on these activities as well.
And the belg and kirempt rainy seasons are what keep them functioning.
But increasingly erratic rainfall and extended periods of drought, due in part to climate change and other unpredictable weather patterns like El Niño, make it difficult for much of the population to consistently grow food, keep animals healthy and earn money.
How can the weather have such a large impact?
The weather is intrinsically linked to health and hunger in Ethiopia. When rain doesn’t fall as expected, farmers can’t always grow the quality or quantity of crops they need to provide for their families, meaning they can’t produce what they need to eat or what they would normally sell at the local market for income.
During drought, water for drinking and daily tasks becomes limited or nonexistent.
And dry land doesn’t produce the pasture animals need to graze, either, which leads many to get sick, stop producing milk and die. Without healthy animals, herding families have no source of milk, meat or income.
Changing and unpredictable weather patterns also, at times, cause heavier rains than usual, which can overflow rivers and trigger flooding that completely wipes out crops, shelters, livestock and land.
While every country on earth is affected by these shifts in weather, climate change disproportionately affects families in poor countries, like those in Ethiopia, who support themselves with agriculture and live hand to mouth even when the weather is consistent.
The effects of unpredictable rain and other shocks can therefore be devastating for these families. Without any other options to support themselves, people are often forced to skip meals or sell their belongings to survive. Others abandon their homes and land altogether in search of food. Unpredictable weather has contributed to nearly 2 million people being displaced from their homes in Ethiopia.
Can people buy more food?
It’s difficult. Many people in Ethiopia face chronic hunger and poverty and have little to no financial safety net to get them through an emergency. According to the World Bank, Ethiopia is one of the poorest countries in Africa, with more than 33 percent of its population living in extreme poverty.
Drought and other crises significantly decrease food supplies in farming areas, too, because fewer crops have been grown and harvested. What is at hand then becomes more expensive, making it hard for already-struggling families to purchase what they need even if the stock is there.
And because agriculture is Ethiopia’s primary and most viable source of income, livelihoods that aren’t dependent on it in some way are rare in most parts of the country. When the agricultural industry is weak, it impacts the purchasing power and stability of entire communities, not just the people who grow crops or raise animals.
How do families cope, then?
Traditional bank accounts are uncommon, with few people having access to financial resources like savings, loans and credit to rely on in case of emergency. Herders, however, have savings and investments in their livestock: camels, sheep, goats or cows. That’s why we focus on helping herders keep their animals healthy and connect them to markets where they can sell them for income when they need to.
When it’s going to be difficult to keep an entire herd healthy and fed — during a drought, for example — herders can earn top dollar and then be better equipped to care for their core breeding animals if they sell a share of their livestock before it’s too late.
Other rural families are often forced to send someone to the city to try to earn a little money as a day laborer, like a bricklayer or home cleaner, when they’re struggling to make ends meet.
And almost 8 million people challenged with hunger in Ethiopia regularly receive food and cash through a food aid program run by the Ethiopian government and development partners.
Who is most at risk?
Hunger in Ethiopia is widespread. The majority of the population is vulnerable to food shortages because so many of them rely on regular rains for their food and livelihoods: According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, the main kirempt rains feed 80-85 percent of the country.
Herders are slightly more equipped to withstand emergencies because they have investments in their animals. Farmers, or families who already don’t have enough to eat, more quickly plunge into crisis because they have fewer assets to help them manage setbacks.
People with higher nutritional needs, like children, pregnant women or breastfeeding mothers, are especially impacted when they don’t have enough food. Hunger can have long-term, disastrous effects on the health and development of all these populations — it keeps people from reaching their full potential and can lock them in a cycle of poverty, and more hunger.
Why are women and children more vulnerable to hunger?
For women and children in Ethiopia, the same risks that make hunger a chronic threat for everyone — drought, poverty, conflict — are heightened by additional challenges that prevent them from getting the food and support they need to meet their specific nutritional needs, including limited access to medical care; a lack of education about diet diversity, health and nutrition; and cultural norms that prioritize the needs of men and boys.
The combined impact of these barriers is devastating: According to UNICEF, only 40 percent of mothers in Ethiopia receive antenatal care, and just around half exclusively breastfeed their babies. Forty percent of children in Ethiopia are stunted, and undernutrition contributes to over half of infant and child deaths. Almost 200,000 children die before their fifth birthday every year. Learn more about the effects of malnutrition ▸
What can be done?
For over a decade we’ve been working to help agricultural families fight hunger in Ethiopia, recognizing that their long-term stability depends on their ability to adapt to climate change, maintain healthy, productive livestock, and improve their overall nutrition. This crisis can be beat.
Our efforts to help Ethiopia include teaching local health facilities to treat malnutrition and educate families about health, hygiene, breastfeeding and balanced diets.
Knowledge can be transformative in the fight against hunger, as it boosts parents’ ability to maintain a sanitary home environment and make informed choices about what to feed themselves and their children. In turn, cleaner, better nourished bodies can fight diseases and absorb more of the nutrients from the food they are getting, which makes them more productive and better able to pull themselves out of poverty.
We also connect herders to markets where they can purchase fodder and medicine for their animals when necessary, and help train local veterinarians to ensure rural communities have access to good, year-round livestock care. Healthier animals mean more stable livelihoods — and more resilience to hunger.
In response to the 2015-16 drought we supplied herders with animal feed, scaled up training and supplies for veterinarians, and linked commercial livestock traders with herders who needed to sell animals in hard-hit areas of the country. This meant critical income for herders who may have lost everything had they waited until their animals were both too sick to produce milk or meat and too sick to sell.
We’ve been working with the Ethiopian government to manage increasing rates of malnutrition by helping it provide medical care and malnutrition treatment in remote communities where hunger and poverty are rampant.
And to help the country overcome these cycles of crisis for the long term, we’ve partnered with the government to manage their early warning systems network, which monitors things like rainfall and market information to predict food shortages before they happen.
Despite the challenges of today, we see a tomorrow — a future without hunger in Ethiopia. We’re focused on building more resilient communities that can work their way out of harm by forging healthy families, establishing strong markets and strengthening the capacity of local governments to appropriately respond to climate risks now and in the future.
How you can help
You are an important part of this progress. Our work helping people in Ethiopia and across the globe fight hunger is only possible because of caring individuals like you. With your support, our teams are able to reach more families with food and assistance, and help more communities learn how they can grow stronger for the future.
Donate today. Every single contribution helps us meet urgent food needs and help families around the world build a stronger, healthier future.
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