The shadow of drought

A drought cycle is upon large parts of Ethiopia in what is being described as the El Nino effect. As was observed by DawitTaye of The Reporter who visited several weredas in Arsi zone of Oromia region, farmers and cattle herders are the ones who are hard hit by the phenomenon. This area is known for its maize and barley production. But little greenery is observed in the area. Instead, wide land cracks, a characteristic feature of a drought season, symbolizes the thirst for moisture.The impact of the drought season could be felt by the larger public with anticipated hikes in food price, drinking water shortage and even power cuts as rain shortage is likely to affect hydro-electric dams.In this exclusive interview, FeteneTeshome, director general of National Meteorological Agency, explains to Dawit the El Nino phenomenon and what the government is doing to mitigate the impacts of the drought.

The Reporter: Parts of Ethiopia are experiencing a rather dry season with poor rainfall distribution. Can you first describe to us what the causes of this phenomenon are?

FeteneTeshome: The impact is observed not just in Ethiopia and it is linked to the El Nino effect which is an unusually warm temperaturecoming from the Pacific Ocean. Heat waves which killed people in Pakistan and India are all the effects of El Nino. This year, our rainy season started normally. The rain condition was ok for the first ten days during the month of June. It gradually declined and we started experiencing shortage in rain in July. But conditions are good in August. Such impacts are not new in Ethiopia, it has occurred several times in the past, including in 2005. We also recall what happened in 1984, which  had affected a lot of people. We experience drought during such El Nino seasons. El Nino can cause serious problems and dealing with the problem depends on how countries’ are prepared in advance.

Does that mean that the phenomenon keeps occurring in ten year cycles? Yes, it could occur in ten or twelve year cycles. It may not be uniform but our forecasts also indicate the same. Historical evidences also inform similar El Nino effects.

Compared to the previous one, how serious would the impact be?

In 1984 there was little awareness among people about, for example, water harvesting. So the impact of the drought would be devastating. But today because people were informed through the various organizational structures, they were storing water every time it rained. Doing so would minimize the impact. That is exactly what people did in Tigray, for example. This is not to say that there are no problems today. We need to store more water in hydropower dam reservoirs otherwise we may need to ration electricity. When we provide the information on time and it is acted upon immediately, we can avoid serious impacts. El Nino impacts are more or less similar all the time. This year’s phenomenon is similar to what was ten years ago. But our capacity to minimize the impact has developed due to people’s awareness on climate conditions.

Are you saying farmers and pastoralists were made aware of the problem? Your agency made official statements only recently.

We have provided the information adequately. We have also held discussions on the seasonal forecast. That is what we do all the time; there is nothing new to this. For example, last year, forecasts from every center concluded that there would be El Nino effects this year. Our agency has done a lot to minimize the impact through its 1,200 centers throughout the country in collaboration with agriculture and water bureaus. We provide information timely. As you may have heard from the media, the EPRDF executive committee has been evaluating the activities carried out.

Do you make sure that the information you provide reaches the lower level?

There are agricultural extension workers at the kebele level. They work closely with farmers. They have been assisting in water harvesting activities. Officials at all levels work to ensure the information reaches the lower level. That is just one mechanism. The other is the media. But yet, the information may not have reached all.

Although there are some signs of improvement, the  shortage in rains over the past month has caused some damage. For example, in Dodotawereda, Arsi zone of Oromia region, we have observed a maize crop covering 2300 hectares completely damaged due to the shortage of rain.

We are aware of the problem in the Rift Valley region including the area you mentioned in Arsi. It is agreed that integrated measures should be put in place to address the problem there. If maize crops fail, farmers should resort to farming fruits and vegetables like potatoes which require shorter time to be harvested. We are seeing more rains now. So we expect the situation will get better. However, we are not experiencing the problem throughout the country. There is no problem in the western part of the country including western Oromia. And the government is prepared for any eventualities. The Disaster Prevention and Food Security bureaus rely on the information we provide to do the work. But it requires coordination among the various government agencies.

You say the problem is not observed in western Ethiopia. But shortage of rainfall is observed in large parts of the country.

Well, for example in Somali region, now is not the rainy season. But if the region does not get the amount of rain it used to get during this time of the year, their livestock will be affected. We do not forecast much rain there. It is similar in Borena. We do not expect a lot of rain there as well because it is not the rainy season and so there will be little impact. In Afar, the impact is being felt to some extent. Irrigation dams in the region – Tendaho and Kessem – need to store water should it rain. The water is needed for sugarcane plantations there. Water levels in these dams are currently showing small increase in millimeters. As there are areas with rainfall distribution lesser than normal, there are also areas which registered rainfalls above normal and closer to normal. This was the case in Gurage and Silte zones in the Southern region. There was rain shortage in July but then there will come a day when it rains heavily. But because they have developed a culture of storing water and using it for longer period, the impact is mitigated.

How about the impact on next year’s crop production and the number of people in need of assistance?

It certainly would have an impact. Crop production may decline. However, more should be done to minimize the impact.

What should be done specifically?

There are two things with the El Nino phenomenon. There was the shortage of rain in July – the rainy season. And there is also a forecast of heavy rain during winter – the dry season. Our forecast for the winter [dry season] is not in yet. We release four months forecasts and our forecast for the winter season is due until September.But past El Nino experience informs us that there would be plenty of rain. That means it could damage crops which would be ready for harvest. So, that is what the farmer should know and prevent. If crops are harvested early, we can avoid such damages. Otherwise, irregular rains could destroy crops that survived the shortage of rain. If conditions continue to improve during August and September, then the impact would not be huge.

What is the government doing to mitigate these recurring and natural problems?

Fetene: The government has been undertaking massive activities not just in agriculture but also in water sector. The El Nino effect could result in water shortage for drinking, irrigation and power generation. That is why there have been efforts in water conservation and storage. We are storing in dams, water every time it rains. That way we can avoid shortage of water problems, which would also means that people and industries would not be affected by power cuts.We work hand in-hand-with government agencies by providing information and jointly evaluate the activities carried out.

What is the impact outside Ethiopia?

For example, in Yemen there is shortage of water due to lack of rain. It is the same in Sudan and the Horn of Africa countries. It is also observed in west Africa. In fact, Kenya felt much of the impact last year.