The worst drought for Ethiopia in more than 50 years

By Patricia Vermeulen*

Ethiopia is facing the worst drought in more than 50 years. Also because of the extreme drought, there is a major food security emergency in central and Eastern Ethiopia. Early estimates indicate that at least 15 million people will face severe acute food insecurity and require assistance in 2016. This makes Ethiopia the country with the largest acutely food insecure population in the world.


Already, significant populations in the Northern Somali region and in southern Afar are in an emergency situation. This means that they are unable to access adequate food for survival and face an increased risk of malnutrition and mortality. Sustained emergency assistance on a large scale is required in different sectors. Which immediate will lead to saving lives and livelihoods. The rainfall in central and Eastern Ethiopia was very poor during 2015, largely due to the ongoing El Niño.

El Niño refers to the periodic warming of the Eastern equatorial Pacific Ocean that brings sea surface temperatures above average. El Niño conditions, which can last for a year or two, develop concurrently with atmospheric changes leading to a variety of global effects. This includes drier than normal weather in Indonesia, the Philippines but also in Africa, wetter than normal weather for Peru and Ecuador, a warmer than normal winter for the United States and above normal rainfall for the southern tier of the United States. The “Godzilla” El Niño of 2015-2016 is expected to be one of the strongest on record, having large consequences on global weather. But not all of El Niño’s impacts are monstrous, and some can even be positive. Knowing what to expect can help people deal with the worst effects of El Niño. The 2015-16 El Niño event will likely end up as one of the three strongest El Niños since 1950.

There are several rain seasons in Ethiopia, such as the Belg, Diraac, Sugum, Kiremt, Karan and Karma rains. In February to May the Belg, Diraac and Sugum rains were unpredictable and also well below average. The following months June to September the Kiremt, Karan and Karma rains started late and were also significantly below average. An analysis of two rainfall datasets, in the period of 1960-2014 and 1981-2015, indicates that central and Eastern Ethiopia received an average of 480 mm of rain between March and September, the lowest level in more than 50 years. This low rainfall, in combination with the highest average temperatures from March to September since 1960 has resulted in extremely dry soil conditions and limited water availability. The areas which are the most affected by the drought include northern pastoral areas of the Afar Region and Sitti Zone, Eastern and central Oromia and the highlands which provide de Belg rains. Also northern Amhara and central Tigray. Other areas which are also affected include Eastern Amhara, Eastern Tigray, the Amhara-Abay lowlands and the lowlands of SNNPR.

The consequences

Due to the extreme drought, there occurred severe water shortages and important crop losses.

Even in some areas, there developed high levels of livestock mortality and also the livestock prices have dropped dramatically. In Northern pastoral areas milk is largely unavailable due to a rare migration of livestock and reduced herd sizes. Given the impact of the drought on food security, lean seasons across central and Eastern Ethiopia will start early and be much more severe than usual. A drastically further increase in the prevalence of acute malnutrition is expected. Excess mortality, especially among children, is more likely because of lacking timely and adequate humanitarian assistance. Mostly lacking is food and nutrition assistance and also health support. However, it is unlikely to reach levels seen during the mid-1980’s due to improved early warning and preparedness, the absence of conflict, and the size of existing food security and nutrition programming.

Nonetheless, expected are that the needs for assistance needs during 2016 will reach their highest levels in at least 12 years. Early estimates by the Ethiopia Humanitarian Country Team suggest that at least 15 million people will require food assistance next year. This includes 8 million people who will receive transfers through the Productive Safety Net Program (PSNP) and an additional 7 million drought-affected people who will require emergency food assistance. The need for assistance could increase further as the full impact of the drought becomes clearer and if rains are below average during the first half of 2016. Assistance needs to be the highest between May and September 2016, the peak lean season in the country’s most heavily populated areas. However, the need for assistance now, and elevated needs are likely to persist beyond next September. Because of the impacts of the drought on livelihoods and asset holding. In addition to food needs, large-scale assistance will be required across a range of other sectors including nutrition, health, water and sanitation, and livelihoods. These needs are above and beyond what the government and donors have already committed.


As the drought and food shortage in parts of Ethiopia continues to worsen, organizations are working with communities and all levels of government to identify and address expected public health emergencies. Focused on the Afar Region, one of the hardest hit areas, there a number of key activities to assist with the emergency response. These activities includes the training of health workers, community members and health facility managers to screen children for malnutrition. Also a logistical support to provide at-risk children and pregnant women with nutritional supplements and to train health workers on emergency response. Furthermore, providing health education to communities about the types of diseases that become more prevalent during drought and food shortages, and helping people access the necessary health care services. Moreover, to work with communities to ensure access to clean water through various means, such as water treatment chemicals and supplies and trucking in clean water. Also by promoting the importance of continued good hygiene practices and proper sanitation to prevent the spread of disease. And last, building the strength of the health system to help ensure ongoing, life-saving prevention and treatment services to continue despite the emergency (e.g. immunizations).

The health implications of drought are numerous and can be far reaching, including compromised quality and quantity of drinking water, poor nutrition and increased incidence of disease and death. There is also a higher risk of cholera and diarrhea. Because about 8 per cent of diseases are water borne, so when there is no clean water available the chances of getting diseases are bigger. Also the gains which are made in improving health delivery are also at risk as people focus on survival for themselves and their livestock.

Northern Pastoral Areas

There is little pasture, forage, or water available in the Northern pastoral areas. More than 200,000 livestock have died in southern Afar and Somali region’s Sitti zone. More than 13,000 households have lost all livestock and migrated to informal camps in Sitti zone. The condition of surviving livestock is poor, and there is almost no milk available for consumption or sale. Livestock prices have dropped sharply and in the hardest hit areas, livestock trade has been significantly disrupted. The loss of livestock assets have significantly limited households’ ability to access food. Also severe water shortages are still ongoing. Despite humanitarian assistance, 2015 admissions of severely acutely malnourished children to feeding programs in Afar Region have been 40 percent above the 2011-14 average. As a result, these areas are already in extreme emergency. Food security is expected to deteriorate further over the coming months as the October to March dry season progresses. A normal start of rainfall between March and April would alleviate water shortages but not the high levels of food insecurity, which are likely to persist through much of 2016.

Eastern agricultural and agropastoral areas

The harvests between June and July failed on the highlands which produce the Belg rains. The Meher harvests in these areas, from October to December, are late due to repeated replanting. This also counts for Northern Amhara, central Tigray, and Eastern and central Oromia.

Recent assessments in Wag Himra, West Haraghe, and North Wollo indicated that, on average, zonal level harvests would be 25 percent below a typical year. In 10 of the 33 woredas visited during these assessments, harvests were estimated to be more than 70 percent below typical levels. The worst-affected households will harvest no crops. Livestock conditions are also poor and income from livestock sales, crop sales, and agricultural labor are already well below average. Currently, households in these areas are quite better off than those in Northern pastoral areas due to ongoing though meager harvests, somewhat better livestock body conditions, and less severe water shortages. Nonetheless, poor households, who are unable to afford key expenses, are selling important assets such as livestock, at low prices, and are beginning to face food consumption shortages. Admissions of severely acutely malnourished children to feeding programs in 2015 are up 10 percent in Amhara and up 50 percent in Oromia compared to the recent four-year average. In many of these areas, food security is likely to become worse over the coming months. This because there are already limited food stocks and asset holdings are exhausted and households face substantial difficulty meeting their basic survival needs.

*Patricia Vermeulen is CEO of Amref Flying Doctors in the Netherlands.