ETHIOPIA - The strongest El Niño weather episode in the last several decades has caused repeated crop failure, decimated livestock herds and driven some 10.2 million people across Ethiopia into food insecurity, the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).
"The outlook for 2016 is very grim," said Amadou Allahoury, FAO Representative for Ethiopia, adding that "after two consecutive seasons of failed crops, the success of the main cropping season that starts now will be critical to preventing conditions from worsening."
"Continued drought throughout the beginning of 2016 also means pasture will become even more scarce, which will negatively impact livestock keepers that rely on those grazing lands and water points for their food security," he said.
"Food overall will become harder to access if we continue to see prices rise, food stocks deplete and livestock become weaker, less productive, and perish."
The El Niño phenomenon is associated with the abnormal warming of sea surface temperature in parts of the Pacific Ocean that has severe effects on global weather and climate patterns — leading to reduced rainfall and drought in some regions and heavy rains and flooding in others.
Under the current El Niño, crop production in Ethiopia has dropped by 50 to 90 per cent in some regions and failed completely in the east. The drought resulted in the loss of hundreds of thousands of livestock.
According to the latest assessments, access to pasture and water will continue to deteriorate until the start of the next rainy season in March. As a result, experts anticipate that livestock will become leaner, sicker and produce less milk and many more will die.
Crop reserves are severely depleted, leaving farmers vulnerable without means of production for the upcoming planting season that starts in March — in many cases, farmers lost valuable seeds through recurrent crop failures, planting time and time again in the hopes of rains that never came.
As a result, malnutrition rates have soared and the number of admissions for severe acute malnutrition among children is now the highest ever reported.
The new FAO response plan aims to assist 1.8 million farmers and livestock keepers in 2016 to reduce food gaps and restore agricultural production and incomes.
The first critical phase of the $50 million will focus on the meher season between January and June.
FAO plans to help 131,500 households plant with a focus on the meher season. This intervention will include a mix of emergency seed distribution, small-scale irrigation projects, and backyard gardening initiatives targeted at empowering women's groups with tools, knowledge and access to micro loans.
As the current drought has not only affected smallholder farmers but also seed producers, it has aggravated already existing seed shortages across the country and made it even harder for farmers to plant. For this reason, FAO is also supporting 10,000 seed producers to produce high-quality seeds and get the local market for seeds back on its feet.
Another 293,000 households will benefit from livestock interventions, such as the distribution of emergency animal feed, vaccination drives to protect some 3 million animals against disease, and restocking of 100,000 goats and sheep to vulnerable households.
As many animals have been severely weakened by lack of food and water, FAO will also implement a cash-for-livestock exchange that will reimburse farmers for bringing unproductive livestock to slaughter and support community feed production.
A third leg of the response plan will focus on strengthening livelihoods of more than 30,000 households and build their resilience to future shocks. This will include cash-for-work programs that will boost families' incomes and improve critical local infrastructure and water access for livestock.
This part of the plan will also target farmers' and women's groups through integrated community projects that support community savings-and-loan schemes, farmer field schools and other methods to help families accumulate and diversify assets.
By focusing specifically on rebuilding the productive capacity of farming and pastoralist families, FAO is supporting ongoing efforts by the Government of Ethiopia, other UN agencies and NGO partners that are tending to the immediate needs of at-risk families.
"In Ethiopia, El Niño is not just a food crisis — it's above all a livelihood crisis. And we need to intervene now to protect and rebuild these livelihoods and people's capacity to produce, to prevent families from becoming long-term dependent on food aid," said Dominique Burgeon, Leader of FAO's Strategic Programme on Reslience and Director of FAO's Emergencies and Rehabilitation Division.
FAO's appeal for $50 million to protect Ethiopian livelihoods comes at a time when international donor funds are stretched thin in light of a multitude of major human-induced crises.
But intervention to secure farming livelihoods now is the best way to help the country bounce back and prevent a further slide into chronic food insecurity, according to Burgeon.
"If response is delayed, recovery will be difficult and the cost of interventions will only increase," he stressed.
Responding to El Niño globally
Elsewhere on the African continent, El Niño has lowered crop prospects in southern Africa and many countries in the region are taking measures. South Africa has already declared drought status for five provinces, its main cereal producing regions, while Lesotho has issued a drought mitigation plan and Swaziland has implemented water restrictions as reservoir levels have become low.
To address the El Niño phenomenon globally, FAO is implementing response plans in 20 high-priority countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean, and the South Pacific, including Ethiopia. Another 21 countries are being monitored closely.
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