Global Policy Forum

Food Insecurity Looms in Parched Horn of Africa

The Horn of Africa is in the midst of the worse drought in 20 years. The problem is especially acute in Somalia where millions of people have been put at risk from food shortages linked to mass deaths of livestock. With no rains, this year’s harvest will suffer, further exacerbating the situation. Global climate change studies have forecast the region will become drier in the future.

By Gayathri Vaidyanathan

New York Times
April 25, 2011

A drought in the Horn of Africa, triggered by the same La Niña episode that caused massive flooding in Australia last year, is plunging millions of pastoralists closer to food insecurity.

Parts of Kenya, Ethiopia, Somalia and eastern Uganda are most affected. The U.N. World Food Programme (WFP) estimates that 8.4 million people are in need of food aid in the region, according to spokesman David Orr. Thousands of livestock have already died in Kenya and Ethiopia from animal diseases associated with the drought. The severity this year will depend on the rainy season between March and May.

"It is too early to say yet, although the general view is [the rains] look like being quite poor in certain parts of Somalia and Ethiopia," said Orr. "Combined with conflict and rising food prices in Somalia, this could be particularly serious in that country."

The WFP is continuing its normal operations of providing a food basket of cereals to the regions but is underfunded by 56 percent for the April to September period, Orr said.

In a country such as Ethiopia -- whose economy is expected to grow at 9 percent this year according to the Economist Intelligence Unit and lags just behind China and India at 8.1 percent per year in the period between 2011 and 2015, according to the IMF -- there are concerns the La Niña episode could hamper growth in the short term.

Droughts are not new to the region. A massive one between 2008 and 2009 left 23 million people hungry and millions of livestock dead. And before that, droughts have taught pastoralists to become nomads, moving with their hardy animals in search of better grazing land.

But recent droughts are affecting a population that is increasingly vulnerable to climate threats. Reduction in livestock holdings due to more frequent droughts, coupled with a population that is growing at 2.5 percent per year over the past 40 years, has decreased the amount of protein and milk available to the average family. There is greater competition for land from agriculture and urbanization. And global climate change studies have suggested the region will become drier in the future.

Meanwhile, the local governments are doing little to protect pastoralist livelihoods in the long term.

"The Horn of Africa has lived with drought for the past 100 years and has to live with it for the next however many years," said a senior agriculture expert with an international agency who spoke on the condition of anonymity to maintain his relationship with the Ethiopian government. "Drought isn't like a tsunami or an earthquake; it is just part of life."

In pastoralist areas where cow and camel herders prize their animals above other forms of wealth, livestock deaths can doom livelihoods. The Ethiopian government is aware of the threat to pastoralists but is doing little other than deploying food aid to the affected regions, said the expert. The drought has not been well publicized in the nation.

A drought for the record books

Unlike more instantaneous natural disasters such as earthquakes, drought progresses slowly like a drumbeat. There is an apex, usually around the ninth month when the numbers of cattle dying rises drastically. The numbers depend on how poor the rainfall is, and meteorologists have so far predicted below-average rainfall for 2011 in eastern parts of the Horn.

Predictions of the current drought depend on ocean temperatures. A La Niña episode, caused by cooling ocean surface temperatures, began in the central Pacific Ocean in July 2010. Temperatures lowered by 1.5 to 1.6 degrees Celsius, changing ocean and atmospheric circulation patterns.

In historical terms, this episode has been among the strongest in a century, according to the World Meteorological Agency. The system unleashed massive flooding in Australia and Southeast Asia. In East Africa, it caused a dry spell between October and December 2010. It was the driest short rain season in 30 years.

However, one failed season does not translate to a major threat. The problem arises if there is a second consecutive season of poor rains during the long rain season of March to May. The season is critical for the Horn, providing from 40 to 80 percent of the annual rainfall.

Other factors include the price of food in local markets, the price of animal feed and water table decrease over subsequent droughts. For a pastoralist, livestock is life and selling or killing a precious asset will be the last recourse.

Current predictions from the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET East Africa) are that rains will be below normal in the eastern parts of the Horn. This may not be enough to replenish pastures and avoid livestock deaths.

Among the hardest hit will be the pastoralists of southern Ethiopia. They move around with cattle, camel and goats in search of grazing lands.

The majority of Ethiopia's livestock exports come from the southern Extensive Livestock/Pastoral Production Zone. This includes southern Somalia, Oromia and the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and People's (SNNP) region, both in Ethiopia. Livestock is a major part of agriculture and contributed 48 billion birr (about $2.9 billion) to the national economy between 2008 and 2009, according to a recent analysis by the IGAD Livestock Policy Initiative.

"So it is that belt across the South, and we are going to have a large, large amount of livestock deaths this year," the agricultural expert said. "Half a million or worse."

Millions need food aid, milk

Half a million livestock deaths could wipe millions of dollars off Ethiopia's gross domestic product given the contribution of livestock to the economy.

The World Food Programme did not corroborate this number, saying that livestock deaths would depend on how poor the rains are between March and May, which FEWS NET currently predicts will be 70 percent below normal for the region. The Ethiopian government's Humanitarian Requirements Document (HRD) from April states that about 1 million cattle ought to be "de-stocked," a term referring to the culling of cattle before they become too weak to be used as a protein source.

The Ethiopian government also estimates in its HRD that 2 million people in the drought-affected regions require food aid. In total, 3 million people depend on food handouts in the nation.

In addition to the immediate food requirements, droughts tend to have a long-term effect on pastoralists who drink large quantities of milk as food. Following rainfall in late 2009, the cows and camels gave birth recently in late 2010. These calves are now being slaughtered to protect the mothers during the drought. If this drought peaks in August and short rains fall in November, the cows will breed in January. The next calving season will be November 2012, making that the time when milk becomes available for pastoralist families.

"The next milk they give to the kids, I'm serious about this, will be November 2012," the expert said.

The Disaster Risk Management Agriculture Task Force in Ethiopia has recommended de-stocking the cattle before the drought worsens to provide cash for pastoralists. The money could be used for food and to purchase feed for important breeding lines of cattle. Culling 40,000 drought-weakened cattle would cost about $2 million, the HRD says.

But the Ethiopian government has not embarked on such activities on a large scale because of high costs, according to the agricultural expert. This is despite the integral contribution of livestock and pastoralism to agriculture, which is the focus of the much-touted "Five Year National Growth and Transformation Plan." The government hopes to double agricultural productivity and achieve 14.9 percent growth on average by 2015.

"We are talking about the entire southern part of Ethiopia and it's not anywhere on anybody's radar really," he said, then asked rhetorically: "Will the government say something about it? Do something about it?"


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