Spotlight on Ethiopia’s Drought

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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 length of the drought and famine.

Since 1983–1985, Ethiopia has experienced a number of droughts, most notably in 1988, 2000, 2002–2003, 2006, 2011, and now in 2015.

Weather enthusiasts might immediately notice a common link between several of these drought events: El Niño. The El Niño of 1982–1983 was one of the fiercest on record, but 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. The country’s 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. 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 in the past; this year, despite the widespread and justifiable fear due to the strength of the phenomenon, Indian agriculture has emerged largely unscathed.

Congruently, those aware of the complicated link between Ethiopian droughts 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 unfounded, as Ethiopian agriculture was largely unaffected. Production volumes of several crops were actually relatively high, and only some “mild localized agricultural stress” was reported.

El Niño events don’t guarantee an Ethiopian drought, and 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 each 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.

Ethiopia has two rainy seasons: the belg, which occurs in autumn; and kiremt, which runs through the summer months. 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. But that’s not always the case.

This year’s belg rains were inadequate, especially for central Ethiopia. Many areas of the country obtained just 50-80 percent of their normal rainfall for those months, while several others received less than 50 percent of 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 the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples’ (SNNP) region, 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 knowledge of which crops are grown in the country, and where. Ethiopia’s most important cereal crops include teff, wheat, corn, and sorghum. 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”, growing 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 frequently inaccurate.

Today, however, the story is very different, with agencies having access to powerful technological tools. One such tool in the 21st-century-policymaker’s kit is the Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI), produced by satellite sensors that observe and report the greenness of vegetation for a given area, invaluable in building an understanding the severity of any drought situation. 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 than average NDVI compared to historical trends. 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 for drought evaluation is soil moisture measurement. Soil moisture 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 year-over-year decline in soil moisture has increased since June, from 32 percent of all districts to 49 percent. By mid-October, for more than half of all Ethiopian districts, soil moisture levels dropped below 20 percent—and this water content is widely thought to be a critical 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 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 in a specific region are essential, especially given their varying water requirements and hardiness. Sorghum, for example, is known for being 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 is produced domestically, and which regions grow enough to be important in national cereal markets.

The soil moisture decline 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 still looks as though it can achieve a robust overall output. Secondly, the picture for corn, while problematic, is not devastating. For the other major cereal crops, it is somewhat harder to make broad assumptions. The outlook for teff looks mixed, but overall production is very likely to decline; the same goes for sorghum.

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 this will be the case—most point to only “occasional” rainfall for almost all of the country. This 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 overflow, ultimately causing floods that affected and displaced thousands.

What will the impact of the drought be?

In the 2014/15 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 United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) predicts that yields in Ethiopia’s 2015/16 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 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 the region to be almost entirely self-sufficient in the grain. The 2014/15 projections indicate a drop in corn production and yields by about eight percent to six million tonnes, which may translate into increased 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 staple cereal crops 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 surplus grain in a good production 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 income, wealth, and savings.

Public organizations and aid agencies today are very 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. 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, Ethiopia’s droughts since 2000 suggest that this presently occuring event is most similar to that of 2012—a non-El Niño year. This finding further cements the notion that the link between El Niño events and Ethiopian droughts is highly complex.

Ethiopia’s stability helped ensure that the drought of 2011–2012, while serious, did not represent a catastrophe as it did for other nearby countries. 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 more commonplace in the coming years as rainfall is predicted to continue to decline and temperatures predicted to increase. While that may be unavoidable, there are several things that can help mitigate many of the negative impacts of drought: widening the selection of predictive technology available to policymakers, increasing access to high-quality and efficient agricultural inputs, and promoting peace.

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