In a two-week time period earlier this month in the Somali region of Zoolo, Ethiopia, the number of child deaths from hunger increased tenfold: 67 children under the age of five perished.
Cattle and crops have died at alarming rates, the country is facing another drought, and invasive pests have encroached. The sudden dearth of food has forced many Ethiopians into informal camps, where food and water supplies are scarce.
The spike in child deaths this month is an alarming warning sign that the country could descend into a malnutrition crisis, according to Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), known in English as Doctors Without Borders. And Ethiopia is now on track to run out of food aid for 7.8 million people by the end of July.
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How did this happen so quickly? The story of Ethiopia’s emerging malnutrition crisis explains how forces including climate change, agricultural practices, and food aid intersect, with real lives — of children and adults — at stake.
1. The Slow Build Toward Drought
Spring and summer rains have declined by 15 to 20% in parts of Ethiopia since the 1970s. Droughts are not uncommon to the land, especially during strong El Nino years, but the frequency has increased in the past few years.
Since 2013, Ethiopia has been hit with five serious droughts that left nearly 5.6 million in need of food. The country is still recovering from the 2015-2016 drought that claimed 260,000 lives, mostly from South Central Somalia.
This drought, however, is different than the one in 2011 because it is widespread throughout the Horn of Africa, according the United Nations. In the past two months, 2 million more Ethiopians are facing hunger, many of them in the southern regions.
With a 50% chance of a strong El Nino this year, forecasters warn that the drought will continue, especially if they see another strong El Nino, which would result in below-normal rainfall in northern Ethiopia.
2. Changes for Crop Production
Many of the extreme weather conditions climate scientists predicted have manifested in Ethiopia already, dramatically affecting agriculture. Crop disease and new pest species that thrive in the warmer climate can decimate a farm, like this invasive caterpillar.
The annual maize production fell from 25 million tons to 4.5 million tons during the 2015 drought. The crops that do survive are often too expensive for many people in poor communities to afford, as is the case for maize, cereals and other staples in Ethiopians’ diets.
3. Livestock Populations Fall
Ethiopia has one of the highest level of cattle ownership in all of Africa. Many people rely on cattle as a way of life, traveling with their herd to find new plains and water; everyone else relies on it for food and milk.
But the cattle are dying at a massive rate, slashing yet another main food source for Ethiopians. From the lack of water, the livestock grow weak and sick, and when the rain does come, the animals are unable to keep themselves warm and die anyway. Some people have lost their entire herds this spring, forcing them to seek food, water and livelihood elsewhere.
4. Forced to Migrate to Aid Camps
Many Ethiopians seeking food and shelter have moved to informal camps where thousands have gathered by nearby water supplies. But these camps do not have enough food or water to go around, leaving Ethiopians totally reliable on external aid.
The informal camps are also basins for disease. Someone must chlorinate the water before drinking it, or else the person could contract “acute watery diarrhea” or cholera. This is a dangerous combination as cholera most severely affects malnourished children and can lead to death within hours if fluid replacement treatment is not readily available.
5. Diminishing Aid in Camps as Food Runs Out
In these informal camps, the Ethiopian government has provided two to three daily meals to each person. But distribution of cooked meals stopped in the last week of May, and distributions of dry food rations were delayed as the government runs out of resources, according to MSF.
The World Food Programme said it will run out of food aid for the Somali region by the end of July. By then, 1.7 million people will face malnutrition and hunger.
Humanitarian groups in the area fear donor fatigue. The head of Ethiopia’s National Disaster Risk Management Commission, Mitiku Kassa, said donors are not responding to the country’s emergency as they have in the past and the humanitarian crisis in the neighboring countries of Nigeria, Yemen, South Sudan and Somalia are likely the cause.
6. Reaching Beyond Ethiopia
The world is facing the worst humanitarian crisis since 1945 with famines in Nigeria, South Sudan, Yemen and Somalia. While Ethiopia hangs on the brink, its government says it requires over $1 billion in emergency assistance to keep from falling into famine.
Meteorologists have attributed fluctuating ocean temperatures to the back-to-back droughts in Ethiopia and neighboring countries. But the decades-long decline in rainfall, increase in extreme weather conditions, and spread of invasive species (and the diseases they carry) in Ethiopia and neighboring countries reveal the decimating potential of climate change.
While Ethiopia is doing what it can to salvage food, resources and its people, the fight against climate change is a global one.