Ethiopia & El Niño: Will this time be Different?

By Katie Hartin (Staff Writer)

Every seven to eight years or so, a major global weather event occurs – El Niño. Caused by a natural rise in oceanic temperatures in the eastern Pacific Ocean, El Niño triggers extreme drought and severe flooding across many parts of the world, but particularly in poorer countries. In many of these low-income regions, people are primarily subsistence farmers or pastoralists and thus are vulnerable to even slight changes in weather events, without a shock like El Niño.

The current El Niño is set to be one of the strongest in the last fifty years, comparable to the devastating El Niño events of 1997/98 and 1982/83[i]. The Horn of Africa and Central America are already seeing the worst drought in three decades, and uncontrollable wildfires in Indonesia are also being attributed to disruptions from El Niño. Although not a direct result of anthropogenic climate change, the World Meteorological Organisation believes that climate change could be exacerbating some of its effects. 

In many El Niño-impacted regions, people already face borderline food insecurity in years of normal rainfall. Below-average rainfall and a poor harvest can force families to start selling off crucial assets (i.e. livestock or farmland), or else face longer food gaps and acute malnutrition. Alongside worsening food security, households may also have difficulty accessing clean water. In areas where flooding is likely to occur (i.e. Somalia, Kenya), people will lose access to markets and water- and vector-borne diseases such as cholera, malaria or Rift Valley fever will spread quickly. 

In spite of the drastic weather predictions, diplomats are confident that this time will be different – events will not unfold like the horrific Ethiopian famines of the 1980s. In that decade, five provinces in northern Ethiopia received all-time lows in precipitation and crops subsequently failed, resulting in a more than 300 percent increase in grain prices[ii]. Coupled with ongoing civil conflict and a plethora of insurgency movements, an estimated 400,000 people died from famine-related causes.[iii] In addition, the Soviet-backed Derg government withheld food aid to stave off the Oromo Liberation Front (OLF) insurgency in the south in an attempt to starve them into submission. This perfect storm of record drought and political instability made the Ethiopian famines one of the biggest humanitarian crises of the twentieth century.

The 1983-85 Ethiopian famine was hugely influential in the international aid community. It changed the way assistance was distributed in countries with protracted conflicts, and the way relief agencies partner with host country governments. As drought raged on in Tigray and North Wallo, resources were diverted to fight off rebel movements, crippling the Ethiopian economy, prolonging the Derg government, and doing little to address the underlying causes of the famine.

The media also played a role in mobilizing resources worldwide to respond to the crisis. Journalists’ haunting photos of stunted and severely malnourished children with protruding bones and bulging eyes sparked efforts like the now-infamous BandAid charity and LiveAid events. This imagery came to epitomize representations of poverty in Africa - despite the famine’s singularity in time and place - and solidified the narrative of the seeming need for a Western savior, despite the somewhat unintended effects of Western intervention in this case.

Today, Ethiopia has one of the fastest growing economies in the world, and the Government of Ethiopia (GoE) has been able to set aside $192 million to provide assistance during this emergency[iv]. The GoE’s Productive Safety Net Program has been in place since 2005, allowing poorer farmers and pastoralists in rural areas to receive food rations and cash transfers in exchange for public works projects. Assisted by the international community, the Ethiopian government has put institutional mechanisms like these in place to build resilience and lessen the impact from climatic shocks. Nevertheless, this El Niño will be a major test. 

As complex crises in Syria, Yemen, and South Sudan continue to require urgent emergency assistance, humanitarian resources are being stretched incredibly thin. In April 2015, the GoE announced that 2.9 million people would need food assistance, which grew to 5.4 million in August, to 8.2 million now and a projected 15 million in early 2016 – and that is just for Ethiopia[v]. UNICEF predicts that as many as 11 million children in Eastern and Southern Africa are at risk from hunger, disease and lack of water as a result of El Niño[vi]. In a time of unprecedented need for humanitarian response, figures like these are daunting and the outlook is bleak.

It is unlikely that another famine of the same magnitude as Ethiopia in 1984 will occur. But I think that underplays the importance of the political milieu at that time, while also potentially overstating our ability to respond to food shortages now. Dealing with El Nino this time may be different, but it will certainly not be any easier.

[i] World Meteorological Organization. El Niño/La Niña Update. (16 Nov 2015).

[ii] University of South Carolina Hazards and Vulnerability Research Institute. “The 1983-1985 Ethiopian Famine.” (2014)

[iii] De Waal, A. Famine Crimes: Politics & the Disaster Relief Industry in Africa. Oxford: James Currey.

[iv] UNICEF Ethiopia. “Ethiopia: Government and Humanitarian partners scale up to meet additional immediate relief needs of El Niño-driven crisis” (13 Oct 2015)

[v] Ibid

[vi] UNICEF. “Children’s lives as stake as El Niño strengthens: UNICEF. (10 Nov 2015)