(Gabriella Meltzer – Council of Foreign Relations)
El Niño was first discovered in the 1600s when fishermen noticed that in some years, water temperatures in the Pacific became warmer than usual. Hence, according to the National Ocean Service, El Niño today refers to “large-scale ocean-atmosphere climate interaction linked to a periodic warming in sea surface temperatures across the central and east-central Equatorial Pacific.” These anomalous weather patterns vary across regions, ranging from heavy rainfall and flooding to severe drought.
The El Niño of 2015-2016 has thus far proven itself to be the worst on record because of its interaction with global climate change, where higher atmospheric temperatures due to greenhouse gas emissions lead to a higher frequency and greater intensity of the extreme weather events characteristic of an El Niño year.
Perhaps no country has felt this more than Ethiopia, which is experiencing its worst drought in roughly half a century. The country has faced three consecutive failed rains, the most intense and recent being in June 2015 with the arrival of El Niño to its doorstep. The primary rainy season from June through September is critical to Ethiopia’s agricultural sector, which contributes 42.3 percent of the country’s GDP and employs roughly 73 percent of its labor force.
Ethiopia has suffered from chronic food insecurity for over thirty years as a result of intense population growth whose over cultivation of small landholdings has put immense pressure on the soil in an already fragile environment. Yet, the drought occurring now has brought a level of devastation that, according to the United Nations, could rival the major famine in 1984 that killed upwards of 900,000 people. As of February 2016, 75 percent of harvests have been lost, one million livestock have died, and ten to fifteen million people require emergency humanitarian food assistance, with 430,000 children experiencing severe malnutrition.
Between 2004 and 2012, Ethiopia’s economy grew at roughly 11 percent annually, outperforming the 7 percent annual growth required to achieve the first Millennium Development Goal (MDG) of halving poverty by 2015. Ethiopia is frequently touted as a sub-Saharan Africa success story in development circles due to government investments in healthcare, agriculture, education, and infrastructure.
Yet as of February 1, the Ethiopian government and its aid partners have announced that they need a total of $1.4 billion in 2016 to address the current drought-induced crisis, and have only received roughly one-third of this amount thus far. The World Food Programme has said that $500 million of this request is urgently needed by the end of this month to extend aid efforts through April. With the political urgency surrounding the current crisis in Syria, organizations like Save the Children have found it challenging to garner public attention and fiscal support for this equally severe humanitarian situation.
Despite its efforts to present itself to the world as leading sub-Saharan Africa’s economic renaissance, Ethiopia remains desperately poor, with a human development index of merely .442 (on a scale of 1.0), ranked 174th in the world. The country only reduced poverty by one-third by the close of the MDGs, and nearly 90 percent of the entire population of 96.5 million is living in multidimensional poverty. Despite all of this, the Ethiopian government has still funded 46 percent of its humanitarian requirements.
Through its flooding, record snowfalls, and droughts, El Niño has proven to be a far greater threat than any nation could have anticipated. This is particularly the case for a resource-poor country such as Ethiopia, whose communities rely on subsistence farming for survival. Ethiopia is justified in its pleas for help, and donor countries should act quickly to aid the many potential victims of famine. However, the adverse effects of climate change will continue to exact an outsized toll on countries like Ethiopia, and in addition to the rapid mobilization of resources in a time of crisis, there needs to be a forward-looking plan to help vulnerable nations build resilience.
* Originally published on Council of Foreign Relations, on March 2, 2016.