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With drought, Ethiopian farmers turn to government and aid groups to expand coping strategies

Teklehaimanot Gebeye, a farmer in Adi Ha,said because of drought he harvested only one-third of the teff he would get in a normal year. Photo: Coco McCabe/Oxfam America

While food aid is sometimes essential, weather insurance for their crops and access to credit can help farmers build their resilience in the face of climate change.

Across parts of northern Ethiopia’s Tigray region, small fields of golden wheat and stacks of teff, the nation’s staple grain, dotted the landscape in early November. To the untrained eye, it looked like a time of plenty. In truth, the harvest for many people here this season has been poor—or worse—because of drought.

In Adi Ha, where about 5,650 people live, village Chairman Sibhat Gebregziaber said in two of its four sub-villages drought had robbed farmers of 100 percent of their harvests. Teff, corn, millet sorghum and chickpeas—all of it had failed. In the remaining two sections, the yield was only a quarter of what it should have been.

For many farmers in Adi Ha, drought has taken a toll on their harvests. In early November, 2015, the landscape remained parched. Photo by Coco McCabe/Oxfam America

About a two-hour drive south, in Hade Alga, the news was no better.  Production of two of the community’s main crops—teff and corn—had failed completely, said Alem Gidena, a local coordinator for the Relief Society of Tigray, known as REST.

Ethiopia is enduring a double blow this year, both from the irregularity of the rainy seasons linked to long-term climate change and because of El Nino, a climate phenomenon that develops in the tropical Pacific and brings extreme weather to several regions of the world. The Ethiopian government says more than 8 million people now need humanitarian aid and the UN is predicting that number could climb as high as 15 million by next year.

Sibhat Gebregziaber, chairman of the village of Adi Ha, discuses the effects of drought on members of his community. Behind him sits farmer Gebru Kahsay. Photo by Coco McCabe/Oxfam America

In their fathers’ time

Sitting in the shade of an old tree villagers use as a gathering spot, Gebregziaber said farmers in Adi Ha don’t know whether what they’re experiencing is climate change or not. What they do know is that this current drought happened unexpectedly.

“It started to rain in June and stopped in July and August,” said Gebregziaber, noting that the rain usually lasts until mid-September. In their fathers’ time, farmers could count on the wet season starting sometime in early April and lingering through the end of September, he said. And in his own lifetime, he remembers the rain beginning in May.

Now, all of that has changed, said Gebregziaber:  The rainy season, so critical for farmers who don’t have access to irrigation, is getting shorter and shorter. Coupled with that is the increasing frequency of years with erratic rainfall. When he was a child, those bad times would happen once every four years. Now, said Gebregziaber, they come every three years.

Coping strategies

What can farmers do to adapt? Some advanced warning of meteorological trends would help, Gebregziaber said.

“If the farmers are informed there will be good rain they can grow long-duration crops,” he said. “If they get informed there will be less rain, they can use early maturing crops.”

Access to improved seeds also helps. For example, some farmers in Adi Ha are now using an early-maturing type of teff called “kuncho.”

And a series of support programs has also shored up the ability of small-scale farmers to cope with challenges. The government provides some of those programs, such as a broad welfare initiative called the Productive Safety Net Program, while aid groups offer others, like Oxfam America’s and the World Food Programme’s rural resilience initiative. Known as R4, the initiative is being implemented with the help of REST.  Weather insurance for crops and access to credit so farmers can start small income-generating businesses are two of R4’s components. The initiative also provides farmers with support so they can save and works with them on natural resource conversation to reduce the risk of disasters.

Over time, these initiatives have made a difference in people’s lives, said Gebregziaber.

“In the past, if you were eating once, now people are eating two or three times a day,” he added.

But the severity of the current drought now means that many farming families need extra support. Gebregziaber said farmers will look to the government to supply them with food.

On the road to Hade Alga

Just outside of Mekele, Tigray’s main city, a crowd had gathered near the roadside around a mound of sacks that men were moving from one location to another: It was a food distribution site. People had come with carts and donkeys to port their share of grains home.

A few hours south, Gidena, the REST coordinator, said about 59 percent of the people in Hade Alga were receiving emergency food aid. A one-month share included 50 kilograms of wheat, 1.5 kilograms of pulses, and just less than half a kilogram of oil per person.

While some households had managed to save some of their harvests from the previous year when the yield had been good, by March they too will be running out of food, Gidena said. Local officials are asking the government to increase the number of families in the food aid program to reach about 80 percent of the area population.

The drought is also causing problems for local livestock—and the families who depend on them for food and income, Gidena added. There is no water in the ponds the animals rely on for drinking and feed is scarce. REST has been trucking water in and digging wells to help alleviate the shortage, Gidena said. And because people need to sell their animals so they can use the cash to buy the food the drought has prevented them from growing, the livestock markets are flooded—and there are few buyers. REST has stepped in to help look for large buyers like hotels and universities.

Aska Teklay, who lives in Hade Alga, used a loan she got through the R4 Rural Resilience Initiative to buy a few goats, which have reproduced rapidly. Photo by Coco McCabe/Oxfam America

Food aid is essential

What does all of this mean for families in Hade Alga?

The food distributions are essential. Askal Teklay, a mother of five children, received a share in November and said, for the moment, she is not having a problem meeting her family’s needs. But what would have happened if there had been no distribution?

“I would be starving and I would sell the goats,” Teklay said, referring to a small herd she had started with the help of a loan she received through the R4 program.

The Ethiopian government estimates it needs about $600 million to respond to the drought and has allocated nearly a third of that from its own reserve funds as well as by moving resources from other development projects. International donors have also pitched in, but there is still a shortfall of more than $230 million.

Farmers like Shekole Hagos can’t shake worries about the weather and its impact on his crops, even as he is getting some support for his family through Ethiopia’s Productive Safety Net Program. None of the teff or sorghum he planted this year produced a harvest and he’s not sure where he will get seeds to plant next year.

“The issue of the seeds has worried us because we can’t even buy (them) from the neighboring areas. They don’t have them either,” he said.

Shekole Hagos, a 67-year-old farmer in Hade Alga, said none of the teff or sorghum he planted this growing season produced a harvest because of drought. Photo by Coco McCabe/Oxfam America

Weather insurance and other solutions

But Hagos, and more than 480 other households in Hade Alga, have bought themselves a measure of security with the weather insurance they purchased through the R4 program. Three years ago, when an earlier drought hit Hade Alga hard, Hagos got a 3,000-birr insurance payout—or about $142. The money cushioned the impact of the drought and prevented some difficult choices.

“When I got the 3,000(birr) I was happy because it saved us from migration and it saved us from selling our animals,” Hagos said. “1,600 (birr) I used to pay loans; 1,400 I used to buy food.” Shortages of rainfall trigger the payouts and this year, according to program organizers, local farmers will be entitled to an 81percent payout.

Beyond that, Hagos said what would help is if the government had some kind of work program for farmers that would allow them to buy and fatten animals that they could then sell for a profit to steadily increase their household incomes and build their resilience.

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