A statement issued by the United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) and was released in early August this year is replete with paragraphs showing the unmistakable difference between a drought in Ethiopia and Australia. The effect of a rain pattern delayed by a season or two in Ethiopia means “Food insecurity is widespread and rates of acute malnutrition are growing now above the international thresholds that define an emergency.”
The immediate trigger this time is a below-average rain during the last two seasons, and a below-average rainfall received since March 2015, according to the 2015 Humanitarian requirement mid-year review. The geographical scale of the drought is worryingly wide, covering almost all parts of the country. The devastation it is leaving behind ranges from low pasture, browse, and water availability in Somali region “leading to massive livestock migration and deaths”, to poor belg rains that “negatively affected livestock production and productivity, contributing to food security deterioration”. Among the affected regions are South Wollo, North Shewa and North Wollo zones of the Amhara regional state in the north; Zone 2 and Zone 3 of Afar as well as East and West Hararghe regions in the east; Arsi, West Arsi, and Bale zones of Oromia in south east; Gurage, Halaba, Silte and parts of Hadiya zones of Southern Nations Nationalities and Peoples’ Region (SNNPR) in the south; and most woredas of Southern and South Eastern zones of Tigray region in the north. “Of particular concern is the increase in food insecurity in traditionally surplus producing areas of West Arsi and Arsi zones of Oromia [regional state]”, according to the report.
So far the drought not only left a trail of dead livestock in its wake but forced a staggering 4.6 million (possibly more) Ethiopians to live the day in need of emergency food assistance. As usual, it compelled a joint appeal by the government in Ethiopia and its development partners for money from the international community.
Sadly, this is only the beginning of the story. OCHA fears the extended impact of El Niño into 2016 means “the season is expected to be below normal, despite improvements in rainfall performance since end-July, as per the characterization of El Niño”. This, OCHA says, will significantly reduce the major harvest (meher) for much of the country in October/November. “A reduced meher harvest following a failed belg season will compound the dire food security in vulnerable areas.” Add to that in the first week of June there were 173 measles outbreak sites compared to 165 sites two weeks earlier. And as of 2 June, 14,272 suspected cases were reported, of which more than 11,675 cases were confirmed.
So why the silence?
Looking at the official reaction one is reminded that such news was not only unwanted at this point in time, but should not have made it to the news headlines. One of the rare official mentions of the problem is a watered-down version of the story given by State Minister of Agriculture (MOA), Mitku Kassa, to the government affiliated Fana Broadcasting Corporation (FBC). He claimed that early-maturing and drought-resistant crops were being supplied in most of the affected areas. In separate interview Wondimu Filate, a spokesperson for the MoA, told the Associated Press that “the government has enough food stock and it is assisting farmers to continue their farming practices.”
Drought and famine prone Ethiopia has always had politicians who are, unfortunately, more sensitive about their own image than the suffering of millions of Ethiopians. In other words, drought has always been a sensitive political matter than hundreds of thousands of people going hungry. It’s still in the memories of many of us that it took a foreign journalist to bring into the world the horrors of the 1970 – 1974 famine that devastated the nation. More than a million Ethiopians would die before the government of the time admitted, if at all, the existence of famine.
The trend of not admitting on time to a looming drought hasn’t improved over the last four decades since 1974 and hundreds of thousands of lives were lost because of it. The decades old Disaster Prevention and Preparedness Commission (DPPC) (previously known as the Relief and Rehabilitation Commission (RRC) and was established in the wake of the 1974 famine), was overhauled in 2009 in a process overseen by the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (MoARD). The result was the establishment of the Disaster Risk Management and Food Security Sector (DRMFSS) which consists Food Security Program Directorate (FSPD) and the Early Warning and Response Directorate (EWRD). Technically, DRMFSS, led by State Minister Mitku Kassa, is responsible for the implementation of the Disaster Risk Management (DRM) approach adopted by the Government with the help from donors. However, while DRMFSS may be discharging its responsibilities there is more information available at UN affiliated offices such as OCHA about the extent of the current drought and its impact than there is at DRMFSS. OCHA, for example, has released its forecast of a looming drought and its impact as far back as Feb. this year. Not much information came out of DRMFSS in between and the number of people in need of emergency food assistance simply doubled to 4.5 million over the month of August.
Use the media
One of the main reasons for droughts to turn into famines and cost the lives of people is the absence of wide-reaching media to track and report on droughts ahead of time. The unfortunate state of media in Ethiopia means the only media networks with the capacity to reach throughout the country are those either owned by the state or affiliated to it.
Owing to that DRMFSS’s relation with the media is limited to state owned or affiliated media, which are habitually an apostle of government triumphs than the suffering of citizens.
Globally drought management practices by various countries prone to frequent droughts is often criticized for using methods largely based on crisis management treating only the immediate symptoms than the fundamental causes. Partly because of that some countries, such as Australia, have included the role of the media into the adoption of national drought policies.
Various researches have also looked into the role of traditional and social media in natural disasters, such as the California drought in 2014, Hurricane Sandy in 2012, and the Haiti Earthquake in 2010. It is now becoming a normal trend for governments not only to work with traditional media but to establish popular social media platforms such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter as communication channels to provide vital information ahead of time and organize support during unavoidable disasters. A gesture largely missing from the government in Ethiopia at this critical moment. Aside from the oft repeated boisterous “Ethiopia rising” narrative, the government should learn from this and use its excessive access to media networks such as FBC, which broadcasts in dozen languages and has a wide reach throughout the country, to inform citizens on looming droughts and mobilize support to help those suffering from it.
After all over two million Ethiopians are on a constant list of food aid every year even during normal times; it is time the country’s policy makers depoliticize hunger as detractor of their image and start treating it for what it is.; a country’s image is nothing without its peoples’ lives.