25 Years After Band Aid, Diminished Foreign Aid and Drought Threaten Ethiopia's Food Security

A quarter century ago, Bob Geldof's Band Aid Campaign raised an estimated $242 million to fight famine in Ethiopia. In the elapsed 25 years, Ethiopia's population has doubled, the world's climate has become increasingly unstable, the Ethiopian government has successfully avoided the repetition of famine, and Bob Geldof has successfully evaded taxes.

While the latter may have stopped receiving media attention, the former three developments tenuously co-exist, creating a perilous situation that may swiftly devolve into crisis.

International aid agencies predict this winter may bring the worst food crisis to Ethiopia since the infamous famine of 1984-85. Famine forecasts are predicated upon the combination of erratic climate behavior -- an effect of global warming -- and this year's decrease in aid from donor countries.

On September 3, 2009, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi will chair a high-level session of the Africa Partnership Forum (APF), the African counterpart to the G-8, to discuss the pressing concerns and demands of Africa in regard to climate change and, in particular, "its effect on mitigation, adaptation, technology and finance" according to a press release from the African Union Commission.

African Union Chairman Jean Ping said in a press release last week in Addis Ababa, "Although Africa is least responsible for global warming, it suffers most from a problem it didn't create." In his keynote address to the 12th Ordinary Session of the Assembly of Heads of State and Government of the African Union held in February in Addis Ababa, Prime Minister Meles claimed that climate change, wreaked by wasteful Western nations, is to blame for the erratic weather and changing seasonal trends afflicting his country. Meles has gone so far as to hold the countries responsible for climate change accountable for alleviating the grievous effects it has had on poorer nations whom, he argues, contributed nothing to the cause but are reaping all the negatives of global warming.

Chairman Ping also underscored that fact that "Africa's climatic vulnerability is compounded by a very low capacity to adapt to the adverse effects of climate change."

Ethiopia is particularly susceptible to climate change as the nation relies on two central rainy seasons and 90% of the country's agriculture depends on natural water rather than man-made irrigation systems. The rainy seasons, the belg in the spring -- conspicuously absent the past two years -- and the kiremt, traditionally beginning in July but arriving up to one month later in recent years, have become less and less dependable sources of water in the past several years.

This year the kiremt -- the summer rainy season -- began three weeks late and yielded lower rainfall than normal. Aid agencies fear the season will end early, or, just as perilous, continue past the harvest date when farmers need dry weather. This was the case in the fall of 2008, compelling the government to send militia into the rural regions to help expedite the harvesting period to avoid the rotting of un-harvested crops.

Ethiopia is plagued by its mercurial micro-climates, which shift dramatically from region to region, ranging from the arid lowlands of the Somali region in the southeast to the oft-flooded western highlands near the Sudanese border. Dr. Gerry Bell, meteorologist and El Niño expert at the National Weather Service, confirms that "Ethiopia is in a particularly precarious position, there is such diversity in the climates from region to region. Any shift in where that wet/dry line is can wreak severe affects on the country."

The decreased rainfall this season is already raising concern from both farmers and aid agencies alike, with desperate attempts to anticipate a food crisis before it is too late. Bell explains that, "El Niño is affecting wind patterns across North Africa and throughout the Middle East but historically there is not a strong connection between El Niño and rainfall in the horn of Africa in the summer months." However, Bell does note that the current El Niño has been the cause of shifting wind patterns across Northern Africa, shunting rainfall to the west of Ethiopia and leaving the central region drier than usual.

Indeed, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) precipitation records from June to September have shown above average rain in the west of the country with below average precipitation in the center, extreme southwest, and northwestern half of the country.

The Ethiopian government's Risk Management and Food Security Sector is charged preventing the recurrence of the type of famine that, in 1984, brought images of belly-distended Ethiopians into homes across the world. The quarter century since the famine of 1984-85 has seen periodic food shortages across Ethiopia -- but these shortages have been anticipated and acted upon before the reaching famine levels. A lasting lesson of the 1984-85 famine was the need for early warning systems and heightened responses to food shortages. Ethiopian nutrition expert Rishi Mediratta explains, "With the Ethiopian government's recent launch of the National Nutrition Program efforts are underway to develop effective early warning systems. By systematically linking nutrition, weather, agriculture and food security data, it will be possible to identify and consequently respond to situations before they become crises. This has the potential to save thousands of lives."

Prime Minister Meles can, in some ways, be proud of his government's efforts to increase food production. Since 1985 Ethiopia has avoided famine. In the late 1990's the country achieved self-sufficiency -- it was even briefly referred to as the "bread basket" of Africa, with more grain harvested annually than South Africa in a good year. But this self-sufficiency, and even surplus, has disappeared.

In 2008, donor nations provided food to 12 million Ethiopians, more than half of it through the United Nations World Food Programme. Only eight months into 2009, WFP aid has already passed last year's level, with the main harvest still looming in the coming months. The specter of famine is accentuated by the decrease in donor aid this fiscal year. As donor countries shift priorities in response to the world economic crisis, the WFP struggles.

Last month in L'Aquila, Italy, the leaders of the G-8 Summit promised to provide $20 billion to ensure improvements in food security in impoverished countries. The G-8 countries have failed as of yet to follow through on those promises. As Western countries pursue their own economic stimuli, donations to poorer states are diminishing.

In 2008 the World Food Programme's Ethiopian operation had a $500 million budget. This year, the WFP's Ethiopian operation has $127 million less. This financial shortfall is equivalent to 167,000 tons of food, and, according to the Famine Early Warning Network Forecast, is predicted to reach 300,000 tons by December. The WFP reports in a recent press release that rations for the 6.2 million people receiving emergency food aid have been cut by a third from 15kg of cereals, beans and oil a month to just 10kg.

The decision to declare a food shortage a famine is much more than a choice of rhetoric. The use of the word 'famine' is a heavily politicized decision, one that Prime Minister Meles currently is not willing to make. With elections looming in May of 2010, Prime Minister Meles cannot afford to tarnish the legacy of his government with a state-declared famine. The government would not be the first to suffer the negative effects a national famine. Emperor Haile Selassie was deposed a year after the 1973 famine; Lt. Col. Mengistu Haile Mariam's communist dictatorship, the Derg, was toppled in 1991 following a civil war galvanized by the 1984-85 famine.

The difference between a 'food shortage' and a 'famine' is not only one of syntax. The practical difference is that during a 'food crisis' there is little change in donated aid, while during a 'famine' aid from donor countries is almost guaranteed to arrive at a higher volume and swifter pace. By labeling a food shortage a famine the Ethiopian government is much more likely to incite international support and donor aid. The question facing Prime Minister Meles: are the millions in aid that a declared famine would likely garner worth the political failure that that declaration ensures?

Is Meles' government too afraid of political failure to recognize a crisis when it hits them in the not-so-rainy season -- or are the aid agencies of the world simply crying wolf? There is no concrete way to tell until after the October harvest. By that time, though, the verdict may come too late.