Spotlight on: Ethiopia’s Drought

27 November 2015

For several months now, Ethiopia has been creeping towards a slow-onset natural disaster. Grain prices have slinked upward, news reports have grown ominous, aid agencies have quietly sounded their internal alarms, and the Ethiopian government has been buying up cereals on the international market.

Now, finally, the severity of the drought has become clear: the United Nations predicts that a staggering 15 million Ethiopians will be in need of food assistance by early 2016.

And as this drought continues to take shape and wreak havoc on the region, it becomes increasingly important to build a complex and comprehensive understanding of what is happening in the country.

El Niño in Ethiopia 

For many, the words “drought” and “famine” are unfortunately still closely associated with “Ethiopia”—an association shaped by the 1983-1985 devastation made famous by the likes of Bob Geldof. And while that catastrophe was rooted in natural disaster, it was exacerbated by man-made disasters as well, with conflict and authoritarianism playing significant roles in the severity and longevity of the drought and famine.

Since 1983-1985, Ethiopia has experienced a number of other drought events, most notably in 1988, 2000, again in 2002- 2003, 2006, 2011, and, of course, 2015.

Weather enthusiasts might immediately notice a common thread linking several of these drought events: El Niño. The El Niño of 1982-1983 was one of the fiercest on record, while the 1987-1988 phenomenon was widely described as moderate, 2002-2003 was another average El Niño year, while many have postulated that this year’s phenomenon may be the strongest in decades.

Ethiopia is in a complex position when it comes to El Niño: its location just below the Sahel belt means that the north of the country frequently reacts to an El Niño event just as the rest of the Sahel does: by getting much drier. But the southern portion of the country can react to an El Niño much like its East African neighbors, wherein conditions become wetter than normal, and can even cause flooding. Furthermore, Ethiopia’s topological and climatological diversity can make it that much more difficult to offer a prediction or explanation of a weather event for the entire country.

This complexity is compounded by the inherent nuance of El Niño events themselves. Each starts with a warming of the Pacific Ocean off the northwestern coast of South America, but the subsequent details—its strength, where exactly the water is warming—vary significantly. And these variables translate into discrepancies and inconsistencies as to how an El Niño will affect any given country or region.

In early September, for example, we wrote about El Niño in the context of the Indian monsoon—farmers and forecasters across the subcontinent had been deeply concerned about the potential impact of El Niño on the area’s major source of annual rains. Though El Niño events have proven detrimental to the monsoon rains in the past, this year, despite the widespread and justifiable fear given the strength of the phenomenon, Indian agriculture has emerged largely unscathed.

Congruently, those aware of the complicated link between Ethiopian drought and El Niño may have grown concerned in the late 1990s, as the “super” El Niño of 1997-1998 began to take shape. But those concerns ultimately proved to be largely unfounded, as despite the strength and severity of that year’s event, Ethiopian agriculture was largely unaffected; production levels for several crops were actually relatively high, and only some “mild localized agricultural stress” was reported.

And not only does an El Niño event not guarantee an Ethiopian drought, but Ethiopian droughts can also occur in non-El Niño years. Both 2000 and 2011, for example, were relatively severe drought years for Ethiopia, neither of which were El Niño years.

The existence of an El Niño system is an important factor in helping determine the weather and associated success of an agricultural season, but it is far from being the only factor: the positioning and persistence of the Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ); the nature of the upper-level Tropical Easterly and the low-level Somali jets; the formation of low pressure areas in North Africa and the Arabian Peninsula; the formation of subtropical high pressure over islands in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans; and cross-equatorial moisture flows from the Indian Ocean and Central Africa all play a significant role in determining weather and agricultural success in Ethiopia.

Background on Ethiopia

Ethiopia’s ongoing drought situation has been widely reported as simply being the result of a severe El Niño. And while that appears to be partly true, the reality is a bit more complex and should be acknowledged as such.

First off, some necessary background—Ethiopia has two rainy seasons: the belg, which runs from March through May; and kiremt, which runs from June through September. The first crop season, which depends heavily on the belg rains, goes by the same name, while the secondary crop season, is referred to as the meher. For many parts of the country, the kiremt rains are most vital, accounting for 50-80 percent of annual rainfall in Ethiopia’s major agricultural areas.

In some years, an El Niño event has bolstered Ethiopia’s belg rains, while reducing its kiremt ones,—an effect which may, to a very limited extent, help mitigate overall crop losses. Unfortunately, however, that’s not always the case—it wasn’t in 1988, for example, and it isn’t this year, either.

This year’s March-May belg rains were inadequate, especially for the central column of Ethiopia. Many areas of the country obtained just 50-80 percent of their normal rainfall for those months, while several others still received 50 percent or less than the seasonal norm. Crop plantings in affected areas, therefore dropped significantly: in Eastern Amhara, plantings were 60 percent below average; in Tigray, they were 48 percent below average; while in SNNP, they were 40 percent below average.

The failure of these earlier rains has a serious impact on soil and plant health, affecting and delaying not only belg crops, but the major meher ones as well. 

Understanding the drought also requires an understanding of which crops are grown in the country, and where. Ethiopia’s most important cereal crops include teff, wheat, corn, and sorghum. And while each of these crops is grown across many parts of the country, it is still possible to make some broad statements about what is grown where. The northwestern-most part of the country shows a preference for cultivating sorghum; the southwestern-most regions tend to grow corn. North-central Ethiopia grows a lot of teff; and the central area just south of the capital is known as the country’s “wheat belt” and grows significant amounts of the grain. Towards the east, where the climate gets progressively drier, residents tend to grow sorghum or are pastoralists.

This year’s drought

The policymakers and aid agencies active during Ethiopia’s infamous 1980s drought had limited tools at their disposal. Predictive technology was expensive and inaccessible, and its frequent inaccuracy could make it difficult to justify.

Today, however, the story is very different, with actors having access to powerful and intricate technological tools. One such tool in the 21st-century-policymaker’s arsenal is the Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI), a satellite sensor that observes and reports the greenness of vegetation for a given indicator, is an invaluable tool in building an understanding of how severe any given drought situation is. The NDVI data for Ethiopia’s corn and sorghum growing season this year indicates that 62 percent of all districts in the country are experiencing a lower average NDVI compared to historical trends—or in other words, 62 percent of all Ethiopian districts are less green than normal. The data for the growing seasons for teff, wheat, and barley are almost the same, with 63 percent of all districts demonstrating a reduced “greenness” compared to historical norms. 

Another powerful tool in the drought-evaluating arsenal are soil moisture measures. Soil moisture—which, as its name suggests, evaluates the water content of soil—can help indicate an area’s ability to successfully cultivate and sustain crops, and can be assessed using satellite technology.

An exploration of Ethiopia’s soil moisture data for 2015 yields some concerning results. The number of districts with a decline in soil moisture has increased since June, from 32 percent of all districts to 49 percent of all districts. By mid-October, for more than half of all Ethiopian districts, soil moisture levels dropped below 20 percent—and this 20 percent water content is widely thought to be a critical threshold wilting point for key crops such as corn.

The soil moisture map above makes it obvious that the ground is getting drier in many parts of Ethiopia, and that a drought appears to be unfolding. And while a drought is indeed affecting Ethiopia, it is not affecting all of Ethiopia, nor is it affecting the entire country in a uniform way.

Several factors are important to consider when interpreting the above map. As mentioned earlier, differences in crops cultivated by a specific region are essential, especially given their varying water requirements and hardiness. Sorghum, for example, is known for being a particularly hardy and capable of withstanding harsh and dry conditions; maize and wheat require more water and more stable growing conditions; and teff typically lands somewhere in the middle. Furthermore, it is important to highlight in any effective analysis, especially one concerning a country where many people are subsistence farmers, which regions consume most of what they produce domestically, and which regions grow enough so as to be important to national cereal markets. 

The soil moisture decline map suggests a few different things. First off, on a somewhat positive note, the drought’s impact on the Ethiopian “wheat belt” is not particularly alarming. The wheat belt, which is denoted by the yellow province in the center of the country and the orange one below it, still looks as though it can achieve an overall robust output. Secondly, the picture for corn, while problematic, is not devastatingly so: for the top-ten corn-producing zones in the country, the decline in soil moisture for one was in the steepest category as shown in the map; for two zones, the decline was in the second-steepest cohort; and for the rest of the zones, the effects of the drought look limited or relatively minimal. For the other major cereal crops, it is somewhat harder to make those broad assumptions: the picture for teff looks mixed, but overall production is very likely to decline; and the same goes for sorghum.

And finally, for someone familiar with the country, the soil moisture decline map makes it easy to quickly hone in on the zones most important to national cereal production. This image, for example, makes it immediately apparent that there are several critical zones that will be negatively affected by the drought: North Shewa (wheat and teff ), North Gonder (teff ), South Tigray (wheat and teff ) and South and North Wollo (wheat) and Keffa (corn).

One important thing to note is that even for those zones and crops that are considered to be “not too negative,” there are shifting variables that could still potentially harm output: sudden or excessive rain, or rains occurring during harvest can easily have a deleterious effect on production. Fortunately, forecasts so far do not seem to suggest that that will be the case—most point to only “occasional” rainfall for almost all of the country. The “almost all of the country” does not include significant portions of southern Ethiopia, where El Niño has been known to cause flooding in the past. Indeed, last month, excessive rainfall caused rivers in the southeast of the country to swell and overflow, ultimately causing floods that affected and displaced thousands (floods occurred in the Shabelle Zone of the Somali Region).

What will the impact of the drought be?

In the 2014/2015 season, Ethiopia produced 4.4 million tonnes of wheat—a record-high for the country, but still shy of domestic demand, which also peaked that year, at 5.2 million tonnes. As of November 2015, the USDA predicts that yields and production in Ethiopia’s 2015/2016 season will drop by 11 percent. Such a decrease will require at least half a million tonnes of additional imports—purchases which historically tend to come from Eastern Europe and the US.

Last year, the horn of Africa country consumed about 6.5 million tonnes of corn—a drop from the previous year’s all-time high of 7.4 million tonnes, but still allowing it to be almost entirely self-sufficient in the grain. The 2014/2015 projections indicate a drop in corn production and yields by about 8 percent to 6 million tonnes, which may translate into a need for the country to ramp up imports—during the 2011 drought, Ethiopia filled the supply gap by increasing imports from its two major corn trade partners, South Africa and Argentina. 

Still, the reports of an unfolding catastrophe of 1980s-proportions can be difficult to make sense of, when all that is apparent is that production for each of the three staples is down by 10 percent or less. But one critically important fact to be aware of is the prevalence of subsistence farming in Ethiopia. Even the slightest change in weather can have devastating effects on farmers that have very little, if even enough, grain in a good year. Furthermore, dry conditions can have disastrous effects on pastoralists who are forced to cover increasing distances to feed and water their livestock, the death of which translates into the obliteration of their income, wealth, and savings.

Public organizations and aid agencies today are especially concerned about the food security of pastoralists in the Somali region of eastern Ethiopia, especially in the area directly south of Djibouti, as well as those in the Afar region, the area directly west of Djibouti. Interestingly, neither of those regions are among the most severely affected by the decline in soil moisture, but the precariousness of subsistence farming and pastoralism there makes the populations very vulnerable to even slight shocks. 

The food security concerns are not only for the pastoralists, however—aid agencies are also predicting food emergencies throughout much of Tigray and North Wollo. Overall, the food security situation in Eastern Ethiopia will be stressed, while the Western half of the country will be minimally affected.


Interestingly, the results of a Gro Intelligence clustering analysis examining Ethiopia’s droughts since 2000 suggest that this year’s event is most similar to that of 2012—a non-El Niño year, a finding which further cements the notion that the link between El Niño events and Ethiopian droughts is highly complex.

The 2011-2012 drought was devastating for Ethiopia’s eastern neighbor, Somalia. Estimates suggest that about a quarter of a million Somalis died as a result of the ensuing famine, representing one of the worst tragedies and food security situations in recent memory. As noted earlier in the piece, however, a drought can be made much worse by conflict, political inaction, and political callousness. And those political realities were the exacerbating factors that turned the Somali drought into a devastating famine.

Ethiopia’s stability and relative calm helped ensure that the drought of 2011-2012, while serious, did not represent a catastrophe as it did for Somalia. On that same note, the headline-grabbing comparisons of this year’s situation to that of 1984 do not seem to hold much water.

Unfortunately for the Horn of Africa, droughts are likely to become only more commonplace in the coming years as rainfall is predicted to continue to decline and temperatures predicted to increase. While that may be ineluctable, there are several things—widening the arsenal of predictive technology available to policymakers, increasing access to highquality and efficient agricultural inputs, and promoting peace—that can help mitigate many of the negative impacts of drought. 

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