Preparing for post-El Niño impact in Ethiopia and the Greater Horn of Africa

Extreme drought followed by excessive rainfall: the weather phenomenon El Niño is at the root of famine and floods in many African countries including the Horn of Africa. Countries across Horn of Africa are currently facing devastating effects of the El Niño weather phenomenon. Several countries are reporting much heavier rainfall in the most recent rainy season and that appears due to changing weather patterns. El Niño-induced rainfall had already created havoc in parts of Ethiopia, Kenya, Sudan, Somalia and other parts of the Horn. The effects of this El Niño are putting the world's humanitarian system, already struggling to cope with the fallout from conflicts in Syria, South Sudan, Yemen and elsewhere, under unprecedented strain.

At the beginning of last week (May 30-31), the IGAD Climate Prediction and Applications Centre (ICPAC) organized the 43rd Great Horn of Africa Climate Outlook Forum at Enashipai Spa at Naivasha in Kenya. The event was organized in collaboration with the World Meteorological Organization, the National Meteorological and Hydrological Services, Global Climate Centers and development partners. The aim of the Forum was to develop a consensus on regional climate outlook for the June to September rainfall season, and formulate mitigation strategies to address the implications of forecasts of seasonal rainfall and temperature on the key socio-economic sectors in the Greater Horn of Africa region. The theme of the forum was "Preparedness for Post-El Niño Impacts in the Greater Horn of Africa".

The Director of ICPAC, Dr. Guleid Artan, noted that climate- related disasters represented more than 80% of natural disasters in the Greater Horn, and the socio-economic losses emanating from climate-related disasters affected development in all countries of the region. He said climate change was likely to lead to increase in frequency, magnitude, and severity of extreme weather and climate events such as drought, floods, a rise in sea levels, and storm surges. Dr. Artan also pointed out that the effects of the El Niño rains had led to the current humanitarian crisis, with some countries in the region recording flooding while others experienced harsh weather conditions that affected millions. He identified Ethiopia as the most affected country with 10.3 million people currently in need of urgent humanitarian assistance. Other countries in need of support, according to the director, were Sudan, Eritrea, Djibouti and parts of Somalia. In total, he said "over 22 million people in the region required urgent food aid and the number could rise in the coming months as the long rains could lead to [further] flooding." Dr. Artan said the mitigation measures put in place by member countries before the El Niño rains began had helped to save lives, as those efforts had minimized the effect of the rains. However, even countries in the North of Africa could be facing flooding from the impact of the long rains that are about to begin. 

In a press release, ICPAC forecast the likelihood of above normal rainfall over most of the northern parts of the Greater Horn during June to September 2016. This included the southern parts of Sudan, most of Eritrea, South Sudan and Djibouti; the northern part of Uganda; western Kenya; and central and northern Ethiopia. The press release noted that the other areas of the Greater Horn had a dry season during this period and that these areas were expected to remain generally dry during the forecast period. This included the northern half of Sudan; eastern parts of Ethiopia; eastern parts of Kenya; almost all of Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi and much of Somalia; and southern parts of Uganda. The early warning information generated in the forum is extremely important for the region where the vagaries of climate variability and change are continuing to threaten problems for national development plans across the entire region.

There is an obvious need for preparedness and early action to be built into the responses to El Niño and the recovery efforts. Development actors should increase risk and vulnerability-reduction efforts in priority areas, including reprioritizing existing development funding to mitigate the risks where appropriate. Certainly, there is significant need for speedy and continuous engagement by the international community. Equally, the  Government of Ethiopia in addressing the situation and preparing for the various forecast options has started to encourage  incentives for water harvesting and provide  compensation seeds to reduce the impact of the drought. Similarly, efforts are under way at all levels to prevent damage from the unseasonal rainfall. The established National Committee and structures cascading to kebele levels have allowed the government to respond swiftly and follow the situation effectively. It is coordinating resources and logistics of both home and international organizations and partners to reach out to drought affected citizens. There is, however, still a major gap to fill the financial requirements.    

In late March, the United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) in Ethiopia, together with its humanitarian partners, launched a 90-day campaign to raise money to finance urgently required food aid for Ethiopia. This campaign aimed to bridge the US$700 million gap between what is needed and what has so far been secured to aid the millions affected by a drought identified as the worst El Niño in recorded history. Other humanitarian agencies in Ethiopia are also exerting major efforts to pull together necessary funding and fill the financial gap. Mr. Jeremy Konyndyk, Director of USAID's Office of the U.S. Foreign Disaster Assistance team said he was "concerned both at the depth and scale of the need [and] the scale of the challenge." Despite the slow response to the appeal for aid, USAID, however, remained "very confident" that this disaster would be mitigated because of the enhanced capacity and expertise in terms of humanitarian response observed over the past three decades. Even though this drought was more severe than those in the past, "we have far better capability to manage this kind of situation than 30 years ago."

Dr. Johann Heffnick, Head of the Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection Department at the European Union Delegation to Ethiopia (ECHO), said the drought had resulted in the failure of two consecutive harvest seasons: the small belg (March to May) and the main harvest season of meher (November-December) of 2015. This had significantly reduced the general level of water, both for human and livestock, causing a serious shortage of fodder for livestock. Both government and humanitarian partners, he said, needed to scale up their efforts in order to simultaneously achieve the speeding up of the amount of aid that is coming, as well as make sure that food, water and seeds are distributed to the people in need sooner rather than later. In an interview with Addis Standard he said the necessary response was already underway, but underlined that the loss of agricultural production in most of the affected areas was "massive", with some areas losing from 50 to 90% of their expected harvest. The lack of water was equally severe, with wells drying up and rivers disappearing. He said, "This has led to a considerable number of livestock deaths. Hundreds of thousands of livestock have died in some places."

The Humanitarian Requirements Document produced in December 2015 to cover anticipated needs for the next six months is now being revised for the second half of the year. USAID expects an increase in the number of people estimated to experience Moderate to Acute Malnutrition from 1.7 million to 2.2 million and in the number of children under five facing Severe Acute Malnutrition to rise from 435,000 to 450,000; in addition, the number of farmers needing emergency seed support would rise to 3.3 million. The Government is planning, with support from partners, to vaccinate 25 million children against measles in more than 500 drought-affected woredas (districts). The EU is clear that the Government's response has been "commendable," but the challenges remain very considerable. There are the concerns over funding, logistics and whether the rains will be sufficient this year. In fact, projections are that the rains should be good. The Government bought one million tons of wheat in October last year and another 500,000 tons in March.  The US Department of Agriculture expects imports this year to increase to 2.5 million tons by September.