Across swathes of eastern Ethiopia, there’s no water to be found. The wells are dry and the carcasses of livestock litter the fields.  Entire communities are migrating from Afar region, on the border with Eritrea and Djibouti. Local NGOs in one district of Amhara region report a doubling of the number of children requiring supplementary feeding—from 3,000 to 6,000—in the past three weeks.  Overall, an estimated 15 million people are likely to need emergency food aid. 

For the Ethiopian government, the drought is a reminder of an era it would rather forget, when Ethiopia was synonymous with famine and harrowing footage of starving children was beamed onto television screens around the world. Most notorious was the famine of 1983-85 that claimed anywhere between half a million and one million lives.  It’s a memory that jars with the image Ethiopia’s government wishes to portray of a modern, ambitious nation where year-on-year double digit growth has been accompanied by massive investment in roads, railways, and dams, and an impressive scaling up of public services to Ethiopia’s 95 million citizens.  The drought is also a sharp reminder to the government that natural disasters in the region have a tendency to destabilize, even topple, regimes if they’re mishandled by the authorities.

Drought is a recurrent problem in this part of Africa, and despite Ethiopia’s push to modernity, many millions of its citizens are perennially food insecure or undernourished.  The immediate cause of this year’s crisis is the failure of two successive rains; the annual spring belg rains did not materialize and the longer summer kiremt rains were lighter than usual. The drought has decimated the harvests that feed roughly 85 per cent of the population.  It’s thought the El Niño weather system is responsible for the severity of the drought.  Six of Ethiopia’s nine regions are affected, encompassing the eastern two-thirds of the country.

It’s the sort of slow onset crisis that struggles to galvanize international attention and resources.  And the situation is not likely to improve any time soon.  While early projections suggest the next belg rains are unlikely to fail, there are fears the El Niño effect might cause excessive rain and flooding, which could be just as catastrophic for harvests as no rain at all.   The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs forecasts that the crisis will peak during the first eight months of 2016. 

Aside from the immediate risks to lives and livelihoods, the drought could have devastating longer-term consequences for the economy and undermine the next phase of the government’s ambitious development agenda, the recently launched Global Transformation Plan II.  It could also undo the steady progress Ethiopia has made in improving the health outcomes of its citizens.  Estimates suggest that between 300,000 and 400,000 children will need medical attention for acute malnutrition.  Already, resources that would have been spent on more sustainable health programs are being diverted to near term relief efforts.

But things might be different this time around.  The Ethiopian government is better prepared than ever before.  Although it was slow to acknowledge the scale of the problem, a rapid assessment, carried out in September, convinced it of the seriousness of the situation. In recent weeks it’s been making up for lost time.  Water is being trucked to affected areas and a decentralized, robust, supply chain is well established for food distribution.  An order for 1 million tons of wheat has been placed. The problem is that El Niño is a global climatic phenomenon and food stocks are in short supply the world over.  Nevertheless, the mood is bullish.  In an interview with CSIS in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s president, Dr. Mulatu Teshome, said the relative lack of attention on the current crisis showed that the international community had faith in his country’s ability to cope: “Twenty-five years ago the effect of El Niño on this country might have been headline news.  But now we are 100 percent able to support those affected.”  However, he added that international assistance would be valuable.

That message has been heard by the U.S. government.  USAID’s Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance (OFDA) has swung into action and is positioning emergency food and non-food supplies.  While the United States has made a generous contribution to the emergency fund, others have been slow to follow suit.  Last month, the UN said that a total of $596 million was required to address the crisis but that contributions to date had totaled less than half that figure.  Urgent fundraising efforts are required because even if sufficient money were available now, procurement and distribution of humanitarian supplies takes between three and five months.

This crisis will also be an important test of ongoing efforts to build the resilience of vulnerable communities so that they can cope better when disaster comes knocking.  Various approaches have been adopted in Ethiopia, many of them led by USAID’s Office of Assets and Livelihoods in Transition.  Livelihood diversification has allowed farmers to reduce the size of their livestock herds, placing less strain on grazing land and water supplies; insurance and saving schemes have been introduced in rural communities, reforestation programs have begun to reverse soil erosion and protect land from the risk of flooding; and satellite images are being gathered and distributed so that pastoralist communities can find grazing land more easily.

One of the most successful resilience efforts is the Protective Safety Net Program, a work for food program that sustains 8.2 million people during the six months prior to the main harvest.  The program is jointly funded by the Ethiopian government and international donors such as the World Bank.  However, it is currently off-cycle and not due to resume until the New Year, when the food situation will have further deteriorated.  In addition, the model might not be the most efficient or effective way to deal with the current crisis because the value of small cash handouts will struggle to keep pace with the inevitable rise in food prices that accompanies shortages.  Besides, as one U.S. official asks: “How can you work if you’re starving?”

The next couple of months will be critical.  Decisive action by Ethiopia and its international partners could lessen the impact of the country’s worst drought in almost 30 years.  But inattentiveness could have deadly consequences and set back Ethiopia’s progress for years to come.