The Ethiopian Guide to Famine Prevention

Facing its worst drought in half a century, the country thwarted disaster and created a road map to respond to future climate emergencies.

Mitiku Kassa, Ethiopia’s commissioner for disaster risk management, in his Addis Ababa office.

Photographer: Zacharias Abubeker for Bloomberg Businessweek

For Mitiku Kassa, catastrophe is just part of the daily grind. As Ethiopia’s commissioner of disaster risk management, he has confronted droughts, floods, earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, and political upheaval. The trials of the job have helped him develop staunch optimism and resilient nerves, but in the summer of 2015 he was worried. “We were facing the worst emergency in Ethiopia in 50 years,” he says. The harshest drought in that time had begun to cripple the country’s agricultural lowlands. Famine, possibly biblical in scope, loomed. By August, more than 4 million Ethiopians were receiving emergency food rations: sacks of wheat, corn, and teff, a grain staple; crates of beans and peas; and jugs of vegetable oil. Soon officials were reporting that these supplies weren’t enough. Rains hadn’t come in almost a year, leaving rivers empty and groundwater overdrawn. Crop yields in some regions were cratering and cattle were dying by the thousands. Acute malnutrition among babies, children, and mothers was on the rise. 

Maps and figures about Ethiopia’s humanitarian response in Kassa’s office.
Photographer: Zacharias Abubeker for Bloomberg Businessweek

In October, Kassa’s team calculated that the number of people needing emergency food had doubled in two months, to 8.2 million, prompting the government to officially request humanitarian aid. By December, 10.2 million people needed food. He was also concerned about continuing to help the many chronically food-insecure Ethiopians who’d been receiving aid when conditions were stable. All told, Kassa would have to feed more than 18 million people—nearly a fifth of the country’s population. 

The logistics of rapidly disseminating so much aid in a country twice the size of Texas are mind-numbing. So is the challenge of paying for it. “You have to get the dollars in the bank, the food through shipping ports, into warehouses, and into people’s homes,” says John Aylieff, a United Nations World Food Program executive who has overseen aid programs throughout Africa and Asia. “It can’t happen overnight, it might take three months or more.” 

Kassa didn’t have that much breathing room. Already, some in the international aid community—Ethiopia’s partners include the U.S. Agency for International Development, the U.K.’s Department for International Development, and the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), WFP, and Unicef agencies—were grumbling that the disaster hadn’t been anticipated sooner, nor more swiftly declared a crisis. The concern, says Mary Robinson, a UN envoy focusing on climate change impacts, was “that the government was reluctant to admit they were back facing problems of hunger and malnourished children at a time when they are striving to be an industrialized, middle-income country.” 

International aid partners scrambled to fill the funding and supply void, but as they did so, something unprecedented happened: Ethiopia became the lead investor in its own survival. After more than a decade of strong economic growth, the government was able to divert huge flows of domestic revenue into the drought response—almost $800 million across 18 months, according to Kassa, who reports directly to Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn. The country’s aid partners have contributed another $700 million. The result has been perhaps the largest drought-relief effort, with the fewest human fatalities relative to the scale of the crisis, that the world has ever seen. Other southern African nations, Robinson says, could look to Ethiopia “for a blueprint in building resilience against the climate pressures ahead.” 

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Illustration: Caroline David

Kassa grew up in Ethiopia’s lush southwestern region, working on his parents’ prosperous farm, which grew coffee, citrus, and guava trees. He was studying agriculture at Haramaya University during the broadly televised, drought-fueled famine of 1984, which killed more than 700,000 people and left millions destitute. Although Kassa was insulated from the tragedy, which struck regions of the country that were dryer and more vulnerable than his, it motivated and haunted him. He received a scholarship to Wageningen University in the Netherlands, where he learned modern farming methods, then returned to Ethiopia in 1998 to become head of the country’s Planning and Economic Development Department, which oversaw agricultural innovation. “He’s a remarkable person—preternaturally composed,” says Aylieff. “We’ve been through pretty rough times and I’ve never seen him get frustrated. He is always just a bottle of calm.” 

Ethiopia has dealt with multiple droughts since 1984, including severe ones in 2000 and 2011. One of Kassa’s first major initiatives was to significantly expand the country’s Productive Safety Net Program, a preventive initiative designed to coordinate the monthly distribution of food rations to people chronically at risk. In return, recipients provide labor to build roads, schools, health posts, food storage warehouses, and water reservoirs. The PSNP also includes regular assessments of damage to farms and of the scope and urgency of nutritional needs, data that helps warn of potential crises. 

Typically, Ethiopia has two rainy seasons; the heavy summer meher rains are crucial because 90 percent of the country’s farmland is rain-fed. In the 18 months leading up to the onset of the 2015 drought, hot and dry weather patterns arising from the El Niño weather effect left vast areas of the country without rain. Farm production in the affected regions dropped as much as 90 percent.

When the first signs of trouble became visible, the PSNP was already providing regular rations to 8 million people, using a network of roads, warehouses, and local distribution points. These served, Kassa says, as “the infrastructure we needed to scale up a rapid response.” Around that time, he began taking weekly trips, often traveling thousands of miles to explore impacts in the worst-hit regions. Kassa, who is 52, a barrel-chested 6-foot-4, and a devout Christian, calls the travel a practical necessity and an exercise in empathy. “A love for humanity isn’t given by training, it is given by life experience and the almighty God,” he says in his office in Addis Ababa. The room has all the trappings of a high official’s, with black leather couches and silk flags mounted on pedestals, but its maps of famine-affected regions and charts detailing supply logistics looked like they belonged in a military bunker.  

Men load grain onto trucks for regional shipment at the Adama storage facility, which serves 60 percent of Ethiopia.
Photographer: Zacharias Abubeker for Bloomberg Businessweek

Ethiopia is diverse—its people speak about 90 different languages and its topology and climate zones vary significantly, so much so that many large agricultural regions were untouched by the drought. Kassa knew that while some aspects of the relief program would be universal, others would need to be tailored. The northern Afar region, for example, was suffering from particularly severe water scarcity, so he assigned 132 trucks to deliver drinking water around the clock there. The eastern Somali region, which is home to almost three-quarters of the country’s livestock, needed water pumps for fodder-supply programs and vaccinations for disease-prone animals. Amhara, in the northwest, had untapped groundwater resources, so it required funds and equipment for well drilling. “The mechanics of the system are beautiful,” says Alemu Manni, a field coordinator at FAO who helps develop seed and fodder distribution programs. “To be able to nationally monitor, track, and distribute supplies among such a vast population, down to such local levels—it’s a vast achievement.” 

It was also difficult to sustain. Kassa and Aylieff described nerve-racking periods when critical supply shipments were held up in Djibouti, or when aid money hadn’t come through. “There were many nights we were up past midnight, when our warehouses were down to their last sacks of wheat or our accounts were down to their last dollar, and we were on the phone pleading for shipments, begging for donor support,” recalls Aylieff. 

Until last year, Ethiopia’s gross domestic product was among the fastest-growing in Africa, with its textile and agricultural sectors growing alongside its infrastructure; agricultural productivity has more than tripled in the past 30 years. Steep taxes on oil usage, and more broadly on industries, agriculture, service sectors, and foreign direct investment helped the government generate the funds for its share of the emergency response budget. Top officials had been channeling much of the nation’s domestic revenue into development projects—from the construction of major dams for hydroelectricity to large-scale industrial farms and modern textile refineries—and were able to divert some of the development funds to the relief effort, while also tapping fresh funds directly from domestic revenues.

Grain and supplemental food marked by the government at the Adama storage facility.
Photographer: Zacharias Abubeker for Bloomberg Businessweek

Ethiopia has a long and proud history of political cohesion and a strong central government—one that has come under fire for being too strong, even dictatorial. Civilian protests in recent months have railed against oppressive leadership. And yet one UN representative says that it was in part because of the government’s strong central power that its leaders could act decisively to secure funds and mobilize relief. “It’s like the Chinese government—very responsive at a time of economic or environmental crisis but brutal in their democratic leadership,” the representative says.

This decisiveness benefited Kassa, who was able to use the large budget at his disposal to help implement some innovative steps. A new food distribution program that he established through the country’s elementary schools was an unprecedented success. Famines tend to cause a sharp increase in dropout rates, because hungry kids burn energy walking to and from school and their families may need them to help find food. So Kassa distributed aid through the schools themselves, offering vitamin-fortified cereals at lunch with a selection of vegetables, fruit, grains, and milk—meals with more nutritional diversity than many children could get at home. In partnership with the FAO, he also supported programs such as pop-up poultry cooperatives with mobile chicken coops, to supply eggs to regions with limited protein sources. In livestock-dependent regions where water pumps couldn’t be installed to grow fodder, the FAO taught herders how to make and sell “multinutrient blocks” for cattle—high-calorie nutritional supplements made of grains and molasses. 

Heavy rains returned this March, technically ending the drought, but nearly 17 million Ethiopians are still receiving food aid. Floods in many regions made it harder for farmers to restore production, and the drought left lasting scars, including damaged soil, on many small-holder farms. In just the past year, the Ethiopian government, Unicef, and other international nongovernmental organizations have hauled more than 12 billion gallons of drinking water, reaching a total of 10 million people. They’ve sunk hundreds of bore wells up to 1,500 feet deep throughout the country, and they’ve sourced and distributed almost 2 million metric tons of maize, wheat, teff, legumes, peas, beans, and palm and vegetable oils. Some crops were sourced from government-owned farms in Ethiopia and neighboring countries; others came from markets as distant as Ukraine, Canada, the U.S., and Australia. 

Kassa tours the storage facility.
Photographer: Zacharias Abubeker for Bloomberg Businessweek

The result of the relief effort, Kassa says, has been “no loss of human life—none.” Some media reported an increase in infant mortality rates during the drought, which would seem to challenge the claim, but Gillian Mellsop, Unicef’s top representative to Ethiopia, says this data is often imprecise, because infant deaths in countries with high poverty rates have so many potential causes. “Since the drought began, the data has not shown any notable increase in infant or under-5 mortality rates,” she says. 

In retrospect, the biggest challenge for Kassa has been balancing short-term relief with longer-term development goals. Whereas development funds have largely been channeled into large-scale industrial projects in the past, drought resiliency going forward will also require local, smaller-scale infrastructure and outreach. During the drought, Kassa couldn’t direct even a fifth of his budget toward local resilience programs such as well drilling and seed distribution. “The cost of food rations to sustain a family is about 20 times more expensive than seed provisions,” says Manni. “Similarly, the cost of vaccinating livestock and creating fodder-supply programs is far cheaper than restocking deceased animals.” Grass-roots, sustainable resilience programs, Manni says, offer countries like Ethiopia the best hope for surviving future crises.

On a late-summer day in the Somali region of eastern Ethiopia, the pastoral lowlands still lay sun-scorched for miles in every direction, the soil gray and cracked like shattered glass. A herd of cows stood listless and gaunt, their hides sagging between their ribs as they scrounged for grass—hunger had killed thousands of cattle in the region in 2016. But at the edge of an empty riverbed, an oasis suddenly appeared: 70 acres of elephant and Sudan grass, papaya and mango trees, maize, sorghum, peanuts, peppers, and cabbage. 

Hamdi Muhammed Mowlid, a 28-year-old father of four, carried bundles of grasses to cows and oxen lounging in the shade. “Bozzänä!” he shouted at the animals. He meant the word, which translates roughly from the Amharic as “couch potatoes,” as high praise. Mowlid comes from a long line of cattle herders, people who migrated hundreds of miles with their animals each season in search of edible pasture. Now he was discovering the advantages of staying put. Lazy cattle burn fewer calories and are more productive—each of Mowlid’s cows was providing as much milk as 10 of his father’s. He sold his surplus, about 5 liters daily, to a local dairy, generating profits for his family of about $30 per week. The sales were coordinated by the Hodan Fodder Cooperative, which Mowlid helped establish alongside 25 neighboring families in 2015. Hodan was a small but hopeful success among the resilience programs that the Ethiopian government and the FAO were able to fund during the crisis. 

At the edge of the oasis, a pump the size of a lawnmower engine drew water from deep below the riverbed into a network of hand-dug irrigation canals. During the drought, the water sustained crops that fed 200 people and provided forage for 150 cattle. “We have fattened our cows, fattened our children, and sold our surplus,” Mowlid said. “We learned what our fathers didn’t know, what our grandfathers didn’t know.” The cooperative also ran a kind of cow-flipping operation, buying skinny cows at a price of about $150 each, fattening them on fodder for six months, and selling them for $300. “In drought, we found a better way to live,” he said.

In the past two months, things have started looking up for Ethiopia. Farmers nationwide have begun to reap their first healthy harvest in two years, and agricultural yields have increased 20 percent nationwide. Kassa expects that he will soon scale back the relief effort and reprioritize the long term, in hopes of forestalling the next crisis. “Soil and water conservation, fodder programs, irrigation and well development, improving productivity of range land for cattle, seed supply—all will be necessary for drought resistance,” he says. And more droughts will almost certainly come. Robinson, the UN climate change envoy, says, “We can reasonably expect that somewhere between three and seven years from now, this region will experience the effects of a more severe El Niño aggravated by climate change.” If the next drought that hits is, in fact, more severe than the last one, it could eclipse the response capacity of any aid-relief effort—no matter how generously funded and well-oiled. “Long-term, the best defense is built-in resilience,” says the FAO’s Manni. “Making ourselves as aid providers obsolete. That, finally, must be our goal.”

(Corrects the name of the summer rains in the eighth paragraph.)