09/07/2011 01:48 pm ET Updated Nov 07, 2011

Ethiopia Drought Solutions: Interview With Lane Bunkers

Lane Bunkers is Catholic Relief Services' (CRS) Country Representative for Ethiopia, one of three East African countries plagued by drought that has affected more than 11 million people. Here he talks about the current food emergency in Ethiopia and how CRS' long-term development and drought mitigation programs have helped ease some of the effects of this crisis. For updates on CRS' response to the drought, visit the CRS Newswire

When did the current food emergency in Ethiopia begin?

Bunkers: The crisis in the Horn of Africa has been in the news for the last couple of months, but the current food emergency in Ethiopia was declared in August 2008, when the government of Ethiopia issued an appeal for international emergency relief. The recent drought conditions have affected some parts of Ethiopia particularly hard because there are very few irrigation systems in a country where 85 percent still live in rural areas and depend on farming for their livelihoods.

What are some of the causes of this emergency?

Bunkers: Some of the reasons for this emergency are climate change and the fragility of the Ethiopian agriculture system, which relies on rain-fed crops. There are two distinct growing seasons, and in recent years, due to climate change, that has changed. Right now, the short rains have become delayed and shorter, and the long rains equally have become unpredictable.

Rising food costs have also had an impact in Ethiopia, which remains a very poor country where incomes haven't kept up with inflation. People are unable to buy the amounts and quality of food that they have been able to purchase previously. The price of wheat, for example -- an important staple food and partially imported in Ethiopia -- continued to increase in June, reaching record new levels with prices 85% higher than last year.

In East Africa, droughts are a cyclical phenomenon. Has CRS been able to alleviate some of the effects of recurring drought in Ethiopia?

Bunkers: Yes. Some of CRS' long-term development programs, especially in the areas of water conservation, have enabled communities to better withstand the kind of drought that the region is experiencing now. Most of the people CRS serves in Ethiopia are farmers and herders, and thus heavily dependent on water for their livelihoods. When these families have access to improved water sources for their land and livelihoods, they have a dramatically improved quality of life. The results are felt in all aspects of life, especially for farmers who have more food and income, and pastoralists who can ensure that their livestock can survive drought conditions.

To stave off some of the effects of recurring drought, CRS has been engaged in integrated watershed resource management for many years. The aim of these projects is to help people increase available ground water by protecting the natural resources within their watershed area. These efforts rehabilitate degraded land and increase ground water supply for domestic and productive use.

In any rural area, there are generally two options for water, either drilling a borehole and sinking a well, or using a natural source for water, like a spring. We can identify the source of water, whether a well or a natural spring, and at the same time address the conservation issues at hand. For example, if you have a spring, you need a protective area around that spring to ensure the health of that water source. A community group or Watershed Committee then has to take over the management and maintenance of that water point.

At the same time, if you're accessing ground water, you need to make sure that you have active forestation. Planting a variety of trees, shrubs, and grasses, for example, helps to stabilize soil, while terracing of hillsides helps to slow rushing rainwater, allowing it to seep into the ground and recharge the local groundwater supply. As a result, farmers have more water for their livestock and crops, a boost in their income, and consequently greater local availability of food.

How have these efforts helped communities to withstand the current drought, which is said to be the worst in two decades?

Bunkers: The unpredictability of droughts requires that humanitarian agencies plan for mitigation in the long term. CRS' development programs have greatly helped communities to resist the kinds of shocks that East Africa is now experiencing. A community that has a well developed water system, whether it's a well or a spring, with adequate conservation efforts, can ensure that the source of water remains productive. Without water conservation and reforestation, many of the water sources that CRS established would have run dry. Communities that have benefitted from CRS long-term development programming have fared much better during this current crisis because CRS helped them adapt their agricultural practices and water conservation efforts.