World Food Program supplies are distributed in a village in Jijiga district, part of Ethiopia's Somali region. (Michael Tewelde/World Food Program)
ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia — The announcement by the United Nations in March that 20 million people in four countries were teetering on the edge of famine stunned the world and rammed home the breadth of the humanitarian crisis faced by so many in 2017.
Yet even as donors struggle to meet the severe needs in the war-torn nations of Nigeria, South Sudan, Somalia and Yemen, another crisis, more environmental in nature, is taking place nearby — nearly unnoticed.
On Thursday, the Ethiopian government increased its count of the number of people requiring emergency food aid from 5.6 million to 7.7 million, a move that aid agencies say was long overdue. The figure is expected to rise further as southeast Ethiopia confronts another fierce drought.
But with food crises erupting across the continent and the government's budget strained by last year’s drought, the money isn't there to fight it. There could eventually be as many people in Ethiopia needing emergency food assistance as in Somalia and South Sudan combined.
Ethiopia, long associated with a devastating famine in the 1980s, returned to the headlines last year when it was hit by severe drought in the highland region, affecting 10.2 million people. Food aid poured in, the government spent hundreds of millions of its own money, and famine was averted.
Now it’s the turn of the lowland region, particularly the area bordering Somalia, where a drought brought on by warming temperatures in the Indian Ocean has ravaged the flocks of the herders in the region and left people without food.
With their sheep and goats mostly dead, the nomads are clustered in camps surviving on aid from the government and international agencies — but that food is about to run out.
“This response capacity that is currently holding it at bay is about to be overwhelmed,” said Charlie Mason, humanitarian director of Save the Children, which is particularly active in Ethiopia’s impoverished Somali region. “We’ve spent all the money we’ve got, basically.”
With donors focused on Somalia across the border, little international aid has found its way to the Ethiopian areas hit by that drought. “I think it’s partly because there are other priorities, and they are not signaling loudly enough to donor offices,” Mason said.
According to a document detailing Ethiopian’s humanitarian needs that was drawn up in January by the government and aid agencies, Ethiopia needs nearly $1 billion to confront the crisis, more than half of which it still lacks. That figure also does not take into account the revised estimates in the numbers of people requiring aid.
During last year's drought, Ethiopia came up with more than $400 million of its own money to fight off famine, but this year, it has been able to commit only $47 million, probably because of an exhausted budget.
There have also been accusations that the government is playing down the severity of the crisis to keep the country from looking bad internationally. During the earlier drought, it was months before the government admitted there was a problem, in part because Ethiopia had gained a reputation as Africa’s rising star and didn’t want to go back to being associated with drought and famine.
The contrast is clear in the bustling capital, Addis Ababa, where rainy skies and a hive of construction projects make it feel thousands of miles away from any drought. While Pizza Hut restaurants are set to soon open in the capital, thousands of children in the arid southeast suffer from acute malnutrition, and cholera is ripping through the relief camps.
The United Nations World Food Program (WFP), which is working in Ethiopia's drought-hit Somali region, has started cutting its food rations to 80 percent. It is short $121 million for its Ethiopia operation this year, and the money is expected to run out over the summer.
If no new money arrives, the rations could be cut to 420 calories for the whole day — the equivalent of a burger. The government’s food contribution will probably suffer a similar fate.
“It’s stretching the humanitarian community,” WFP regional spokeswoman Challiss McDonough said, referring to the string of crises in the Horn of Africa and elsewhere on the continent. “I don’t think of it as donor fatigue. Quite frankly, the donors have been extremely generous, continuing to be so — but they are overwhelmed.”
There is also the fact that the Horn of Africa has been incredibly unlucky these past few years in terms of weather. Though famine was averted, many parts of the Ethiopian highlands are still recovering from the 2015-2016 drought, which was attributed to the El Niño ocean-warming phenomenon in the Pacific.
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The U.N. World Meteorological Organization said Friday that there is a 50 percent to 60 percent chance that the Pacific will see another strong warming trend this year, which means Ethiopia’s highlands will be slammed again at a time when world resources are scarcer than ever.
“The droughts are coming more frequently and more often and they are worse — and that’s climate change. That’s very, very clear,” McDonough said. “You talk to any farmer how are the rains now compared to 20-30 years ago, they see a difference in their lifetimes, particularly the older ones.”
Even while they have one of the smallest carbon footprints on the globe, herders’ fragile existence in the arid climate of the Horn of Africa is probably the most threatened by climate change.
Adding to aid organizations' concerns is a proposal by the Trump administration to slash U.S. contributionsto international aid institutions, including the WFP. The U.S. government is the largest donor to the program. The proposed cuts, part of the president's 2018 budget blueprint, are likely to face stiff opposition in Congress.
Paul Schemm is the Post’s overnight foreign editor based in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, joining the paper in 2016. He previously worked for the Associated Press as North Africa chief correspondent based in Morocco and prior to that in Cairo as part of the Middle East regional bureau.