History Repeats Itself: Ethiopian Drought Causes Famine


One of the deadliest disasters during the 20th century occurred in Ethiopia between 1983 and 1985, when the nation suffered severe famine. Due to the limited rainfall in 1983, crop failed resulting in an increase of 300% in grain prices nation wide, causing severe food shortages in 1984. But it wasn’t the first time Ethiopia experienced harsh food and water conditions. In 1974, the nation experienced a less severe famine, which gave the way to Marxist soldiers to overthrow a weak government. While the new government tried to prevent future famines through new reforms, the vision was short-lived and ineffective. The insurgency became more prominent across the nation and the government was unable to deal and effectively handle famine. When the 1984 famine broke out, the international aid was monopolised by the government causing rebel occupied regions to be withheld from necessary aid. Without doubt, the famine was exacerbated by the civil war that was taking place. While numbers vary, it is estimated that over 200,000 people died from famine related causes by October 1984. The final death toll, however, of the devastating catastrophic situation reached up to one million.

Back then, more than 30 years ago, the government realised that something had to be done in order to prevent future famines. They responded by relocating their inhabitants from the northern drought prone areas to the south. The Ethiopian state also encouraged urbanisation, since the communities would be able to access government services and necessities. These projects were, however, unsophisticated and unpopular by the Ethiopian people. Since the 1984 famine, UN’s International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) has provided the government with $50 million to introduce water schemes in order to create wells, filtration systems, pumps and reservoirs.

But in June 2015 the drought hit Ethiopia again, experts believe it will be the most severe drought in 50 years, worse than that of 1984. UNICEF estimates that today’s drought in Ethiopia puts 8 million of its 60 million citizens at immediate risk. Of the 8 million, 1.4 million are children under the age of 5. In today’s condition, the lack of shelter, food and water, have greater impact upon children’s immune systems increasing the likelihood of disease. But the majority of the health problems in drought struck areas, such as malaria, diarrhea, pneumonia, intestinal parasites and tuberculosis, are preventable. The immediate life-saving interventions that the UNICEF currently are undertaking, by providing water and preventing diseases, are however short-term solutions. The loss of cattle have prolonged the crisis, since they are an essential part of survival in many drought affected areas.

Previous experiences have taught us not only to raise funding for immediate assistance, but to prevent the Ethiopian recent developments from collapsing. James Jeffrey, freelance journalist in Addis Ababa, touched upon this issue earlier this week in an article published in Al Jazeera. How is it that same disaster reoccurs 30 years after global humanitarian relief invested many millions of dollars in projects to prevent such events to repeat itself?

According to Jeffrey, Ethiopia tried to deal with the issue itself, until it was too late. Ethiopia has under the last decade experienced an economic upswing, with an average of a 10% annual growth. To start with Ethiopia tacked the situation itself, just like donors encourage. The food security network and major infrastructure projects that was developed after the 1984 was employed, including the opening of the countries only railway line to transport food and aid. But the government’s willingness to display its economic independence was shattered when the government was unable to predict the droughts severity, affected by the influence of El Niño. While the Ethiopian government has not been exemplary in handling the crisis, the slow response from the international community has been beneath contempt. Ethiopia is appreciated to be one of the five poorest nations in the world. Even in favourable environments, the nation struggles with poverty, diseases, corruption, low life expectancy, high mortality rate and low water safety. The current drought has competed for international donors in the humanitarian crisis stricken year of 2015. The civil war in Syria and Yemen, and the European migration emergency have caught most of the medial attention.

The UN is now calling for donations to increase to deal with the immediate short-term issues facing the nation. The major challenge, and long term goal, is to restore and nurture the nation’s recent achievements in terms of education, food security and health. The UNICEF, argued that the, “consequences could ripple through generations,” if these maintenance of these essential developments are ignored. As the drought is a fact, the Ethiopian government now instead needs to establish the allocation of its collected $360 million.

Like most others, Park Williams, climatologist at Columbia University, blames the Ethiopian drought due to the lack of rainfall during their rainy season. Williams however argues that the effect of El Niño could have been expected as the forecast was ahead of time. Proactive measures and international aid could have been more efficient, if the world could see what was predicted.



Sally Wennergren