On the knife's edge in Ethiopia
A vortex of climate change and rising population threatens Ethiopia's gains
in feeding itself
By Carl Neustaedter, The Ottawa Citizen May 12, 2012
Ethiopians from the township of Feji Goba pick up bags of maize they receive
through an emergency food assistance program in Shashemene, Ethiopia, after
prolonged droughts affected their crops. The relief program is funded by the
Canadian Foodgrains Bank and its partners, February 3, 2012.
Photograph by: Carl Neustaedter , The Ottawa Citizen
SHASHEMENE, Ethiopia - Abdala Wahilo finds relief from the midday sun under
the corrugated metal roof of a warehouse in Shashemene, a town not far from
the farm where he tries to support a family of 12 on a single hectare of
land. Here, at this emergency food aid distribution centre, he also finds
some relief from the hunger that his family has faced in the last few years
as repeated droughts have ravaged this region in southern Ethiopia.
"We don't want aid," he says, waving at the wall of maize bags and plastic
jugs of cooking oil that will provide basic rations to his family and more
than 26,000 other people in the area. "We want to work and support
But without aid, his children eat at most twice a day and he and his wife
only once, so Abdala says he's thankful for the help. And he's seen what
happens without it: Last year, when the worst drought in decades hit, so
many people in this area became malnourished that feeding centres were set
up for children and pregnant women. To survive the past few years, he also
had to sell most of his livestock, which had produced milk and butter he
sold to raise money for food and school fees. Some of his children had to
suspend their studies.
A vortex of population growth, land scarcity and
changing climate has wrenched Shashemene and much of densely populated
south-central Ethiopia from an area that produced food surpluses less than a
decade ago to a place where food aid is regularly needed. But the country as
a whole has made steady progress in reducing poverty and blunting the impact
of droughts since the devastating famine of 1984. And, at eight per cent, it
has one of the highest economic growth rates in Africa, if not the world.
Still, there's much more to do. After all, Ethiopia ranks 174th of 187 on
the UN's human development index, which measures income, education and life
expectancy. It's one of the world's top aid recipients, and around a tenth
of its people, like Abdala, needs some kind of food assistance each year.
Asked if getting a handout hurts his pride, Abdala pauses, then says: "I am
happy because my children aren't starving."
And with that, he hoists a 50-kilogram bag of maize on his back and heads
out of the warehouse, back into the dusty lot where hundreds of others await
their ration, back into the hot February sun that he prays will give way
soon to the spring rains.
Ethiopia is a frustrating paradox to its many western aid donors, including
Canada, which put more than $176 million into development projects here in
On the one hand, the regime is often in the headlines for jailing members of
opposition parties and journalists - it's not surprising it won all but one
of 546 seats in the last election two years ago - and, more recently, for a
Human Rights Watch report condemning the relocation of tens of thousands of
citizens to allow Chinese and Indian companies to set up massive commercial
farms to produce export crops. On the other hand, many aid groups laud the
government for a commitment to poverty reduction that is far greater than
many African countries.
"In Ethiopia, you actually see a government . that's committed to try and
make a difference," says Jim Cornelius, director of the
> Canadian Foodgrains Bank, an aid and
development agency that's worked in Ethiopia since the 1984 famine. "A lot
of progress has been made in the country."
The most obvious sign of progress is that droughts and other "shocks" like
food price spikes no longer cause full-blown famines - there's hunger, yes,
but not death on the grand scale that burned itself into our collective
consciousness in 1984. There's now an early-warning system for food crises,
and Ethiopia's Productive Safety Net Program creates public works projects
to help more than seven million chronically vulnerable people. From road
repairs to terracing and replanting the country's eroded hillsides, at-risk
farmers work in exchange for food or the cash to buy it. (To avoid
dependency on handouts the Ethiopian government stipulates that, except in
emergencies, food aid is never given without work in return.) When drought
hits areas not covered by the program, emergency aid kicks in. Last year,
3.2 million Ethiopians got emergency food aid to supplement their own
The paradox of repression and development stems from the same source: The
regime's almost total control over its citizens and the economy. From the
control of land tenure - citizens cannot buy or sell land - to the
distribution of seeds and fertilizer, the government reaches deeply into the
lives of most Ethiopians. Once ruled by an emperor who controlled all the
land, then by a highly centralized communist regime in the 1970s and '80s,
the country's current government, led by longtime Prime Minister Meles
Zenawi, models itself on the highly controlled state capitalism of China,
its biggest trading partner.
Meles, heading to Camp David next week at U.S. President Barack Obama's
invitation, will be one of four African leaders discussing food security
with G8 leaders. Although he's reviled as a despot by his detractors, he
gets a lot of slack from western donors and allies because he runs a safe
and stable country amid the chaos of Somalia to the east and the warring
Sudans to the west.
As the World Economic Forum in Addis Ababa wrapped up on Friday, aid
activist and Irish pop star Bob Geldof
> urged Prime Minister
Meles to be more inclusive and tolerant of civil society groups. "If they
keep saying 'you can't write anything critical,' they're in trouble," Geldof
said. "Have them participate, allow the pressure valve to come off."
More than $3.5 billion (U.S.) in aid rolled into Ethiopia last year, but
it's buying less and less influence with the Meles regime, which plays
geopolitics to its advantage.
"The weight of development aid in terms of influence on the Ethiopian
government has been decreasing and has been on the wane
for a number of years," says Nicolas Moyer of the
> Humanitarian Coalition, a
network of five major Canadian aid and development agencies that works in
Ethiopia and around the world. "The increasing presence of Chinese
investments on the private sector side has largely decreased the influence
of the development donors on the Ethiopian government's thinking and
The Ethiopian government may hold most of the cards in controlling the
country's destiny, but with it comes the responsibility of feeding 90
Driving south from Addis Ababa to the country's most densely populated
areas, that challenge comes into sharp focus.
The smooth, black highway that cuts through the dry season's palette of
dusty browns and beiges is lined with Ethiopians on foot, carrying water in
bright yellow jerry cans or driving heavily laden carts pulled by stoic
donkeys. What's missing here? Trucks carrying goods and raw materials, the
stuff of commerce. That, says Cornelius, shows how little economic activity
there is here beyond farming. Not only does this limit Ethiopians' ability
to work off the farm for extra income in bad times, he says, it limits their
diet to what they can grow themselves since many can't afford to buy other
types of food. And in the big picture, it means that as the population grows
and everyone's parcel of land gets smaller, there isn't enough opportunity
for farmers, much less their children.
"We have to do something about moving people from the land to livelihoods
that may still be related to an agrarian economy," says Foodgrains Bank
field representative Sam Vander Ende, who's lived in Ethiopia for more than
18 years. "But the peasant livelihood isn't going to get us there."
The highway winds past a vast greenhouse complex, more than two kilometres
long in all, where up to 10,000 day labourers are employed growing roses for
European markets. It's evidence of the government's recent, and
controversial, push for large scale commercial agriculture that brings in
much needed foreign currency.
Still, the vast majority of people remain on the land. The poorest families
in south-central Ethiopia subsist on less than a hectare of land - many on
much, much less.
Thomas Tora, a farmer in the Damot Woyde area, has only an eighth of a
hectare (about the size of an NHL hockey rink) on which to support his
family of six. Even in a good year, that's not enough to feed everyone. Last
year's drought left his children malnourished to the point that they
couldn't stand up, he says, much less go to school - which he couldn't
afford anyway. He left his village to gather wood to sell in an effort to
make ends meet. Eventually the Foodgrains Bank and its local partners set up
a relief program, and a government food-for-work program also assisted him
and thousands of nearby villagers in the same situation.
Asked if he would move to an area with more or better land, Thomas, shakes
his head under a tattered ball cap. "I am too weak to go," he says,
explaining that he has health problems. But among his neighbours there's
wary enthusiasm for resettlement.
"Everyone would be willing to go," says Zewdie Zebdewos, the chairman of the
local township where Thomas lives. "But they are worried about the land and
about malaria." Many people here live higher up in the hills where malaria
can't stalk their children or their livestock. Arable land in low-lying
areas often goes unfarmed.
Resettlement of any kind, large or small, is a hot button topic. Beyond the
current controversy over accusations of forced resettlements, memories of
the former communist regime's disastrous mass relocations are as close as
the tractors rusting on abandoned collective farms. Canada - and many other
western donors - won't fund anything tied to resettlement efforts or
But there is a recognition that something has to be done to deal with the
scarcity of land in densely populated places if Ethiopia is to become
"The country does need to be looking at how it can develop its land, and it
should be making land available to those who don't have lands," says
Cornelius of the Foodgrains Bank. "The critical thing is that it's voluntary
and there does need to be accompanying services provided to make it viable."
Too often, he says, people have been resettled to areas with insufficient
roads, schools and health care.
With land tenure firmly in the government's control, migration to cities has
also been held firmly in check, observes Moyer of the Humanitarian
"The current system keeps rural populations in rural areas," he says. "If
you did open up land title, then land would start to be sold and more
families would start to move to cities." The government prefers slow
urbanization, adds Moyer, who lived in Ethiopia for three years. It wants to
avoid the experience of other developing countries where migration spawned
slums, dire poverty and crime.
With such limited mobility, Ethiopians have few options.
"You have a huge, burgeoning population of people who don't feel they have
any control over their destiny," observes Vander Ende. "It's in the hands of
God, it's in the hands of the federal government, it's in the hands of the
local government . it's in the hands of (aid agencies like) Canadian
"Ethiopia struggles with promoting small-scale and community-led development
where Ethiopians could set up small businesses, improve their farming
practices and be part of the solutions themselves,"
says Moyer. "Ethiopians don't feel part of the solution. The state has
always been the source of their livelihood."
Explore Aid online: Find data and analysis on Canada's aid and engagement
with the developing world at the
quick-review/%20target=%E2%80%9Cblank> Canadian International Development
Platform at cidpnsi.ca.
A few hours' drive from Shashemene's travails, the farmers in a small
township in the Kutcha district do feel part of the solution to chronic food
In fact, they no longer need food aid.
The villagers in Dana resettled here voluntarily in the dying days of the
communist era, three ethnic groups speaking three languages, tossed together
in a forest of snakes, the occasional lion, and no services. Life was very
tough: clearing land, eking out a living from nothing. It's reminiscent of
the hardships faced by the settlers of the Canadian West, observes
Cornelius, who runs the Foodgrains Bank from Winnipeg. Its biggest
supporters are the farmers who work the Prairies today, people who know
something about the vagaries of weather and working the land.
Today, Dana is a different place.
Cellphone in hand, farmer Oych Yaya walks along a ditch that catches water
from a nearby river, hops up onto the edge of a concrete trough, and follows
it to the other end, where the water flows into his own patch of insurance
against unpredictable rains: One-quarter hectare of irrigated land that all
but guarantees at least two good crops a year.
More than 230 of his neighbours got the same opportunity three years ago
when they dug the channels for this water diversion project funded by the
Today, Oych is earning cash for the first time by selling surplus crops such
as onions, peppers and bananas. He can now afford to pay fees and boarding
costs so his seven children can go to school in Selamber, the district town.
For years, their education was interrupted whenever droughts made paying
fees impossible. His cellphone helps him track prices in nearby market towns
so he can get good prices for his crops.
While aid agencies and the government take on similar irrigation projects
and promote more productive ways of farming around the country, development
experts say Ethiopia is not making the most of its land. According to
government statistics, 740,000 of its 1.2 million square kilometres is
arable, but only 150,000 square kilometres is being cultivated.
"The agricultural potential is there," says Moyer. Despite being home to the
source of the Nile and being the 'water tower of Africa,' he adds, only a
small percentage of the arable land is irrigated. And because farmers do not
have tenure over the land and plots are rotated between them every few
years, he says, they don't invest as much as they could in the land.
"Everybody knows they won't have the same land 10 years from now, so there's
a lot less investment in terms of how to maximize the use of the land,
whether it's irrigation . or being able to use your land as collateral to
In the meantime, Ethiopians find ways to survive lean periods.
"People have been facing hunger for centuries, for generations," says Vander
Ende. "And one thing that Ethiopians excel in is survival skills. They know
what to do." While aid is sometimes needed, he says, it's "at best only a
supplement" to generations-old coping strategies and survival skills.
These include planting "famine crops" such as enset - often called false
banana due to its appearance - whose roots can be eaten when other crops
fail. In good times, families build up assets such as livestock, which can
be sold in lean times. And there is a strong tradition of villagers banding
together to help one another. There are even specific terms for each kind of
mutual assistance; afoosha, idir and iqub refer to groups that look after
social functions, funerals and rotating credit and savings associations.
Building on these traditions, local development agencies are now helping
women, who often have little say in community affairs, create self-help
groups of their own. Since 2008, the women of the village of Sere Belaka
have been meeting weekly under the shade of a grove of trees overlooking a
spectacular valley, each taking her turn to lead the group, building her
confidence. Each week, each member contributes one birr (about five cents)
to the group. The women, all illiterate and most living on half-hectare
farms, explain that the idea of pooling their savings was a revelation that
has made a sizable change in their lives. The women have used the money to
buy sheep and resell them at higher prices, fatten up and butcher an ox to
sell, and stockpile maize until prices rise. With their earnings, they
helped one mother get medical help for her son who'd broken his arm,
contributed to church and home construction and invested in members'
micro-businesses such as bee-keeping. And it sure beats going to the
moneylenders. As one woman explained, being able to pay school fees was the
best insurance of all: The women want their children to get an education,
get good jobs and be able to take care of them in their old age.
"No matter what community you're in, parents want their kids to be in
school," says Moyer. "They are limited in their options in subsistence
agriculture. Most, if not all, see the way out through education."
In Shashemene, the rains Abdala Wahilo prayed for in February didn't come -
at least not in time. And by the time any moisture hit the ground in late
April it was too late for most farmers like him, who count on the "short
rains" for crops that will feed them until the major crops are harvested.
"The short rainy season has effectively been a writeoff," reports Vander
Ende, noting that the season's crops provide crucial food during the "hunger
gap" between the main growing seasons. In recent weeks rains have come to
some areas, and Vander Ende says that may help some farmers prepare ground
for planting main crops in June.
"We're on a knife-edge here," he says, "seeing if we can salvage something
from this very, very late rain."
There's not much they or anyone else can do about the weather, not even the
ever-present Ethiopian government. And the forecast is worrisome.
> FEWSNET, a famine early
warning system funded by USAID, released two reports in April that don't
bode well for the people of south-central Ethiopia, where so much of the
In the Wolayta area, not far from Shashemene, FEWSNET reported that the
sweet potato harvest was a "near
complete failure," food prices were rising, as were admissions of severely
malnourished children to feeding programs and "stabilization centres."
"Increased sale of livestock and firewood, consumption of immature enset and
migration to towns in search of labour are being reported by poor
households," the report says. "Given such outcomes, thousands of poor and
very poor households in these parts of the region are currently experiencing
a food security crisis."
second report looked at the long-term climate trend. For many areas of the
country, FEWSNET says, the outlook is good, with rainfall expected to keep
farms productive. That, it says, is likely going to be needed to offset the
problems facing south central Ethiopia where farmers like Abdala and the
women of Sere Belaka can expect a drier future. The report concludes:
- Rains in this part of Ethiopia have decreased 15 to 20 per cent since the
- Rising temperatures are making dry conditions even worse.
- The drop in rainfall is happening in the country's most populated and
fast-growing areas, creating conditions that "could dramatically increase
the number of at-risk people in Ethiopia during the next 20 years."
Whether it's called climate change or not, says Moyer, the reality on the
ground looks the same to the people living there.
"Whereas these regions may have seen severe droughts every five years and
catastrophic ones every 10 years, we're seeing them sometimes back-to-back,"
he says. "If you're going to face two months of severe drought and a
potential famine situation where you can't access food, if you have to sell
off your livestock or your key household assets, you're going to be worse
off for a long period and may be even less equipped to deal with the next
crisis that comes."
For Cornelius, that's where relief comes in.
And go ahead, he says, call it a Band-aid solution.
"We have Band-aids for a very good reason," he says. "We need to cover
wounds so they don't get infected and lead to bigger problems.
"We strongly feel that providing immediate relief is essential for dealing
with the immediate crisis, but it also makes a huge difference in the long
term. If you don't provide relief and the family takes their kids out of
school, that's compromising the future."
For many Ethiopians, the future is measured by the next meal, the next crop,
the next rainfall. The longer term solutions, are, for the most part, out of
their work-weary hands.
Links to Canadian development and humanitarian organizations working in
There are dozens of Canadian organizations working in Ethiopia. Two
mentioned in Citizen stories today are:
The Canadian Foodgrains Bank: <http://www.foodgrainsbank.ca/
The Humanitarian Coalition (Care, Oxfam, Oxfam Quebec, Plan, Save the
Others can be found at <http://www.canadahelps.org
Carl Neustaedter is Deputy Editor of the Citizen. He travelled in Ethiopia
on a food study tour organized and funded by the Canadian Foodgrains Bank.
He may be reached at <mailto:cneustaedter_at_ottawacitizen.com>
C Copyright (c) The Ottawa Citizen
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Received on Sun May 13 2012 - 16:53:44 EDT