El Niño is making life very difficult for people in Ethiopia. The U.N. warned in late November that as many as 100,000 people could be displaced by flooding in the northern part of the country. Meanwhile, drought to the south will leave more than 10 million people in need of food aid, Save the Children has warned. In total, more than 15 million people in Ethiopia may need some sort of assistance in 2016.
“The worst drought in Ethiopia for 50 years is happening right now … world leaders … must take the opportunity to wake up and act before it’s too late,” said John Graham, Save the Children’s Ethiopia country director, in a statement. “We know that if we take the right steps together we can prevent the suffering of millions, as well as alleviating the overwhelming and enduring poverty that these kinds of acute emergencies tend to leave in their wake.”
Estimates from just a few weeks ago projected that 8 million Ethiopians would need food assistance. The jump to 10 million is leading outlets and aid groups to elicit the memory of the 1984 famine in Ethiopia that killed hundreds of thousands of people. Warmer sea-surface temperatures caused by El Niño, and the associated global weather impacts, are set to peak right around now. The World Meteorological Organization says it is the biggest in 15 years and may be one of the strongest on record.
“Right now we say we think it’s really going to be one of the three strongest ones, it may be one of the two, that we don’t know yet. But definitely it’s already a very strong one,” Michel Jarraud, World Meteorological Organization secretary-general, said to the media in mid-November. “However, this event is playing out in uncharted territory. Our planet has altered dramatically because of climate change, the general trend towards a warmer global ocean, the loss of Arctic sea ice and of over a million square kilometers of summer snow cover in the northern hemisphere.”
There has been low rainfall in Ethiopia and it is expected to remain sparse in the south of the country. But a lot has changed in the 30 years since a massive drought led to the famine. Ethiopia is in a much better position to handle drought, as is the rest of the world to respond more quickly. Though in 2011, tens of thousands of people died in nearby Somalia after a severe drought brought famine.
The lower mortality rate experienced by Ethiopia as compared to Somalia during the drought was heralded as a success for the country. And it supports the well-regarded theory by Indian economist Amartya Sen that famine is the result of politics, not weather. The $142.95 million already spent by Ethiopia to address the current crisis is evidence of its ability to respond and understanding that it must take proactive steps to support the estimated 400,000 children at risk of severe acute malnutrition.
“The structure of the economy has changed. It has become diversified now,” said Abraham Tekeste, deputy head of the National Planning Commission, to Reuters. “The economy has become resilient to shocks now.”
Ethiopia is confident that its more diverse economy, which relies less on agriculture, and projected 10 percent GDP growth positions it to deal with the effects of El Niño. Groups like Save the Children and the U.N. are rallying to meet the estimated $600 million needed to respond to the crisis. Acting immediately can save money and lives.
“According to recent reports combining U.N. data on the cost of providing life-saving support with evidence on the economic impact of drought, an early response could save an estimated $8 million per day. Money isn’t wasted by investing early, in fact it helps to ensure investments in resilience and risk reduction are maintained. We simply cannot sit back and wait until the situation has reached crisis point this time,” said Graham