JUMPING a fence of prickly pears, Gumat Hussain, a local chief in the driest district of North Wollo, Ethiopia’s most drought-prone province, walks gloomily through his sorghum. “The crops have not produced grain. They are useless even for the animals,” he sighs. “My oxen and goats will soon die. Our people will wait only for the government to respond.”
In many lowland parts of North Wollo, a day’s drive north of Addis Ababa, the capital, the annual midsummer rains lasted for under a week. This was because of a particularly strong El Niño effect, which this year made swathes of Africa drier than usual, along with a longer-term drying of Ethiopia’s climate, especially in the north and east. Now it is harvest time and the tall, green crops belie their fruitlessness.

Ethiopian officials say that this failed harvest is as bad as the catastrophic droughts that befell Ethiopia in 1965-66, 1972-73 and 1984-85, killing more than 1m people in all. But a sophisticated food-security system means that poor Ethiopians these days can cope much better with drought than before.
“Many, many people died in the past. But we now have early-warning systems and programmes to mobilise grain from areas of surplus to areas of scarcity,” says Mohammed Yasin, head of Disaster Prevention and Food Security in North Wollo, a province whose name was once synonymous with famine. “We will avoid this problem without evacuating areas.”
The government says that 8.2m people (around 8% of Ethiopia’s population) have been affected by drought. Human factors can make things worse, as is happening across the border in South Sudan, where the UN says war and displacement means that at least 30,000 could starve (out of about 3.9m going hungry) because humanitarian agencies cannot reach them. But in Ethiopia the authorities are now arranging for a massive transfer of food aid from stores in the country and, eventually, from abroad. In the last big drought, in 2010-11, which hit the whole Horn of Africa, Ethiopians fared better than neighbouring Kenyans—and a lot more so than the people of Somalia, to the east.
Foreign aid has played a big part in alleviating Ethiopians’ plight, but the government has helped a great deal too. Extreme poverty in Ethiopia has been halved in the past 20 years. The economy has been one of the fastest-growing in the world and the government pays for an increasing proportion of the country’s social services.
The Overseas Development Institute, a British think-tank, puts much of Ethiopia’s ability to deal with drought down to its Productive Safety Net Programme (PSNP), Africa’s largest social-protection scheme. Set up in 2005, it puts around 6m able-bodied men and women to work for five days a month on public works, such as digging waterholes for animals or building terraces for crops. In exchange, their households and those of more than 1m less able citizens receive food or cash amounting to 13kg of cereal and 4kg of pulses a month for the leanest half of the year
Ethiopians are deemed to have “graduated” from the programme if they have weaned themselves off this welfare-for-work scheme, usually by diversifying from subsistence farming into more lucrative enterprises. One such graduate, Mulubrhan, lives in a highland village of North Wollo named Hanging Mule after an errant beast that hanged itself on its own bridle after falling from a narrow path. He owns around 100 eucalyptus trees which he gradually sells for firewood. He also has half a stake in a small flour mill, which grinds teff, Ethiopia’s staple seed, used for baking the traditional bread known as injera. “Before, my focus was only on feeding my six children,” he says. “The PSNP helped me to focus on making money.”
Poor Ethiopians have gained much from the PSNP and from the government’s agricultural policy. But the population, at 95m-plus the second largest in Africa, is growing so fast amid a drier climate that the state’s food-security programme is still under severe pressure. Ethiopia’s dependence on food aid varies as much as its erratic climate. The PSNP is designed to preserve people against “moderate shock”, but in years such as this one, that resistance is eclipsed by the magnitude of the drought, so needs to be supplemented by foreign help. The British government, which gives more development aid to Ethiopia than to anywhere else, has just promised an extra £45m to feed 2.6m people. Ethiopians hope that other foreign donors will chip in soon.