Report: Ethiopians could still go hungry despite economic gains

With its population of 91 million expected to double in the next 22 years, and a drier climate, Ethiopia will have trouble feeding its people, a new report says.

A report forecasting increasing hunger in parts of Ethiopia in the next few decades makes agonizing reading for a proud people eager to see their nation's reputation for human misery banished.

A surging population – the current population of 90.9 million will double over 22 years at the current 3.2 percent growth rate – combined with drier, hotter weather "could dramatically increase the number of at-risk people in Ethiopia during the next 20 years," according to the Famine Early Warning Systems Network study.

The findings follow the Horn of Africa's worst drought in six decades, which left 4.6 million Ethiopians needing emergency assistance last year. Another 7.4 million are classified as "chronically food insecure" by donors. Harvests and pastures are already suffering because rainfall during Ethiopia's two wet seasons has declined 15 to 20 percent over the last 35 years.

In densely-inhabited crop-growing parts of the Rift Valley south of Addis Ababa, rapidly increasing populations will also have to deal with declining rainfall. "It appears likely that the combination of population growth, land degradation, and more frequent droughts will result in more frequent food-related crises," says the study. If temperatures keep rising, conditions in some areas will become too hot for the production of coffee, Ethiopia's primary export.

Despite the severity of these ongoing problems, many Ethiopians believe their country should be better known for its long history of civilization, including an early 4th century adoption of Christianity and heroic 19th Century defiance of Italian imperialism. But instead the nation – which describes itself as the "water tower of Africa" due to the rivers coursing through its highland heart – is seen through the lens of the mid-1980s famine brought to the world's attention by Bob Geldof's Live Aid concerts. Over 30,000 have signed an online petition to have a reference to the country removed from the "famine" entry in the Oxford English Dictionary.

This popular sentiment is matched by the government's attitude. Donors said last year that the estimate for those in need in the southern region was half a million below what it should have been. Understandably, Ethiopian officials prefer to focus on the impact of impressive economic growth in overcoming poverty, rather than how many millions are fed by donated sacks of grain.

"National governments often see an emergency declaration as a sign of weakness, especially if there is a drive for food self-sufficiency," Oxfam and Save the Children said in a January report on last year's crisis. Ethiopia's government hopes the nation will no longer require food aid when a 5-year development plan ends in mid-2015. 

While this is unlikely to occur, further progress will happen if the economy keeps expanding, as it is expected to do. Growth – which topped 10 percent for the last seven years, according to Ethiopian government figures (the IMF put it at a few percent lower) – has helped the proportion of the population in poverty fall by almost 10 percent to 29.6 percent between 2004 and 2011, the government said in March.  

FEWS NET also forecast some sunny spells amongst the gathering clouds. Ethiopia doesn't "face a cata­strophic national failure of rainfall, but rather regional hot spots with a tendency towards more frequent droughts," it says. And "improved yields in climatically secure areas could help mitigate the impact of those effects."

This is exactly what the government is trying to do in a nation where around 80 percent of people still work the land, partly through the work of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation-backed Agricultural Transformation Agency. The ATA aims to boost crop yields – a doubling of the productivity of Ethiopia's staple grain teff has been mentioned – by techniques such as improved planting and more efficient fertilizer application.

While the intentions are admirable, the challenge is considerable: farmland per person has been declining at twice the rate yields are increasing. As a result, already low cereal production per capita could fall by 28 percent by 2025, says FEWS NET. "This level of food production could leave millions more Ethiopians exposed to hunger and undernourishment," it warns.

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