Addis Abeba — Millions of Ethiopians face severe food shortages as a result of the failure of crucial seasonal rains, a problem increasingly linked to climate change.
The Ethiopian government announced last month that 3.7 million of its citizens will require humanitarian assistance between August and December of this year, up from 3.2 million in January. The 16 percent increase follows the failure of the Belg rains, which normally fall between February and May and are essential to the country's secondary harvest.
The lack of rainfall is being blamed on climate change, with experts saying it is leading to erratic rain patterns and disruption to normal seasonal changes.
Mohamed Ahmed, a farmer in his early 40s, is one of the millions dealing with the consequences of the rainfall changes. He feeds his family of seven by farming a one-hectare (2.5 acre) plot inherited from his father in the village of Doba in the east of the country, 325 km (203 miles) from the capital, Addis Ababa.
But Ahmed's land has declined in productivity over the past two decades, even as the size of his family has grown.
"Last season (Belg) I (could) barely sow," the farmer said grimly. "The rain came almost a month later than the usual time. It is sometimes heavy and sometimes light. The yield is not impressive at all."
Agriculture is the backbone of the Ethiopian economy, employing 62 million people (about three-quarters of the population), ensuring more than 85 percent of the country's export earnings and contributing 43 percent of GDP, official figures show.
Most parts of Ethiopia have two rainy seasons and one dry period. Long heavy rains from mid-June to mid-September, known as kiremt, enable the main crop growing season, Mehir, which leads to a harvest from October to January.
The shorter and more moderate Belg rains are important for short-cycle crops such as wheat, barley, teff, and pulses, which are harvested in June or July, and for long-cycle cereals such as corn, sorghum and millet.
FARMING MORE LAND
Faced with deepening food insecurity and poverty as a consequence of changing weather conditions, the government has responded by trying to boost agricultural production.
Ethiopia harvested more than 218 million quintals of crops in the most recent Mehir season, surpassing the previous season's production by 13 million quintals and beating government targets by 3 million quintals, according to the government's Central Statistical Authority. Produce from smallholder farms grew by 7.4 percent compared to the same season last year.
The increases are due to additional land being put under cultivation, following large-scale resettlement programmes by the government, aimed at relocating farmers to more productive land. The government has not yet produced an official tally of number of people resettled, but unofficial figures give the total as more than 1.5 million over the past five years.
More than 12.8 million hectares (31.6 million acres) of land are now under cultivation in Ethiopia, almost one million hectares (2.5 million acres) or 8 percent more than in the last Mehir season.
Despite the increased yields, production is still less than 90 percent of the amount required to provide sufficient nutrition to all the population, according to a report issued last year by the Ethiopian Economic Association, a nongovernmental organisation.
Throughout the country, prices for staple foods remain relatively high, and with inflation hovering around 20 percent in July, they are not expected to decrease before the next harvest enters the market, experts say.
The failure of the Belg crop is raising fears of a humanitarian crisis among organisations working to provide drought relief in the country.
In July, the World Food Programme (WHP) forecast a significant drop in long-cycle Mehir crops such as maize and sorghum in many lowland and mid-altitude areas of Ethiopia during the next harvest season, following below-average Belg rainfall. The majority of crops produced in Ethiopia are categorized as long-cycle crops, needing at least six months to grow.
In a speech last month, Abdou Dieng, the WFP's humanitarian food coordinator in Ethiopia, said that the lateness and weakness of the Belg rains had taken a toll on agricultural production in areas of the central highlands, particularly in the regional states of Southern Nations, Nationalities and People's Region, central Oromiya, and eastern Amhara.
Pastoralist areas also have been hard hit and "vulnerability remains high due to the lingering impact of last year's drought emergency," Dieng said.
Somali and Oromiya are the regional states most affected by food shortages, together accounting for two-thirds of those seeking relief assistance.
While the Belg harvest accounts for no more than 10 percent of the country's total annual grain production, it may provide up to 50 percent of the yearly food supply in some highland areas, such as Wollo and Shewa regions, experts say.
The Belg rains are also the main annual rains for the pastoral and agro-pastoral areas of southern and south-eastern Ethiopia, where they supply critical pasture and water for livestock. Even in regions where the rains do not irrigate an extra harvest, they are still crucial for seed-bed preparation for Mehir crops.
The failure of the Belg crop ironically comes at a time of strong economic growth for Ethiopia. Speaking at a national workshop for disaster reduction last year, the state minister of agriculture, Sileshi Getahun, cautioned that the country's growth rate of 11 percent for the past seven years was vulnerable to changes in the climate.
"While we are proud of this achievement and realize the benefits, we are also aware of how much natural disasters can hinder growth," Getahun said. "These disasters are becoming more regular and pronounced in terms of frequency, intensity, and coverage due to climate change."
Pawlos Belete is a journalist based in Addis Ababa.