Issue 53 - Article 4

Improving drought management systems in the Horn of Africa

March 19, 2012
Adrian Cullis
Garissa cattle market, Kenya, October 2010

The Horn of Africa is synonymous with drought and famine, and the region returned to the media spotlight in 2011 as a result of a region-wide La Niña drought. There was, however, much less mention of the fact that Ethiopia has recorded double-digit economic growth rates in recent years and is the third fastest-growing economy in Sub-Saharan Africa. The country has also made important efforts to address chronic food insecurity through the launch in 2005 of the Food Security Programme, the largest social protection programme in sub-Saharan Africa outside of South Africa. This article highlights positive developments in the management of drought in Ethiopia, with particular reference to the drylands.

Ethiopia’s drylands

Ethiopia’s drylands account for 65% of the country, but support less than 20% of the nation’s population of 85 million. In contrast to the highlands, which are dominated by smallholder farming, extensive livestockkeeping plays a central role in the livelihoods of people living in the drylands. Livestock provide milk and are sold to exporters to raise cash for food and clothes, to cover health and school fees and for other general household purposes.

The dryland year is divided into two wet seasons (one short and one long) and two dry seasons (again, one short and one long). Livestock are trekked between wet- and dry-season grazing in much the same way that livestock are moved into and out of summer Alpine pastures in Europe. Dryland livestock systems in the Horn produce more milk and meat per unit area  than ranching systems in areas of similar rainfall in Australia and the United States. Domestic and export sales of livestock from the Horn of Africa are worth an estimated $1 billion a year. Despite high levels of efficiency and large inflows of foreign currency, the drylands are under pressure from population growth, the fragmentation of pastures and conflict, and there is no coherent policy framework to reconcile different interest groups. Dryland communities continue to adapt to changing  conditions and are now herding fewer cattle and more drought-tolerant camels and goats. Households are also moving to  alternative, nonlivestock livelihoods. Resourceful as they are, however, an increasing number of poorer households in the drylands are no longer able to bounce back after the failure of two consecutive rains. Indeed, as confirmed by the 2011 drought, some very poor households cannot support their families through a single extended dry season. Increased development assistance is required to help them complete the transition to alternative livelihoods, while at the same time continuing to ensure the long-term future of dryland livestock production and export.

Emergency assistance to social  protection and drought management

With the support of donors, the Ethiopian government has taken important steps to better manage drought. The Productive Safety Net Programme (PSNP) was established in 2005, considerable amounts of food are routinely distributed to poor and very poor households, early warning systems have been strengthened and the government is moving beyond the ‘food first’ culture to ensure higher levels of livelihood support. A Disaster Risk Management Technical Working Group (DRM TWG) has been established to coordinate sectoral Task Forces including the Agriculture Task Force (ATF), which covers hazard management for drought, flood, livestock disease, crop pests and diseases and volatile food prices. The government has also developed a draft Disaster Risk Management Policy and an associated Strategic Policy Investment Framework (SPIF). All of these steps meant that Ethiopia was perhaps better prepared to manage the 2011 drought than ever before.

The National Meteorological Agency (NMA) issued guidance on the emerging La Niña episode in October 2010. Forecasts outlined drier conditions in the equatorial parts of Ethiopia including the southern drylands, and wetter than normal conditions in the western and northern sectors of the country. In the southern drylands the forecast was for far lower or failed ‘autumn’ 2010 and ‘spring’ 2011 rains. The forecast proved accurate. The DRM TWG made the coordination of drought  preparedness and response a priority, as did the ATF. ATF monthly meetings routinely featured weather, food price and  agency response presentations and updates. To coordinate and guide drought interventions, the ATF produced a briefing paper on disaster preparedness, response and recovery. While recognising that drought phases would vary from location to location, a generic typology was outlined:

  • Alert/alarm phase – November 2010 to March 2011.
  • Emergency phase – April 2011.
  • Alert/alarm phase – May and June 2011.
  • Emergency phase – July to November 2011.
  • Early recovery phase – December 2011 to December 2012.

In September 2011, the ATF released a further briefing paper on early recovery and rehabilitation. The two briefing papers are Disaster Risk Management–Agriculture Task Force Briefing Paper 3, ‘La Niña Related Disaster Preparedness, Response and Recovery Road Map’ and Disaster Risk Management–Agriculture Task Force Briefing Paper 4, ‘La Niña Early Recovery and Rehabilitation Road Map’.  Anticipating better  ‘autumn’ 2011 rains, the paper recommended the following interventions:

  • Animal health.
  • Restocking with local breeds.
  • Rangeland management, including the safeguarding of dry-season grazing reserves.
  • Supplementary feed and support to local irrigated fodder production.
  • Stabilisation of food prices.
  • Cash transfers (direct and cash for work).

The ATF also encouraged donors to increase their support for livelihood interventions, in particular through flexible funding facilities along the lines of the USAID-funded Pastoral Livelihoods Initiative (PLI)’s ‘crisis modifier’, which had successfully supported a range of livestock interventions including animal health, livestock feed supplementation, commercial and slaughter destocking and water point rehabilitation in the 2006 drought.

Emerging lessons

The 2011 drought offers ATF members some useful learning points.

1. The importance of markets

In times of drought, livestock prices tend to fall and grain prices rise, resulting in much-reduced household purchasing power. In the drought of 2006, PLI support to market traders resulted in the off-take of an estimated 20,000 cattle, which were transported to feedlots and eventually exported to Egypt. Other livestock were slaughtered, again supporting livestock prices. More robust by the time of the 2011 drought, livestock markets functioned well and livestock prices remained stable. Livestock off-take was further assisted by humanitarian agencies supporting commercial and slaughter destocking. However, grain prices rose by as much as 100% in some market towns, requiring poorer households to sell more animals to buy the same amount of grain as in ‘normal’ times. Clearly, the ATF has more to do to monitor grain prices and help the government to stabilise them in drought-prone areas during future droughts.

2. The importance of increased flexible funding

Despite increasing donor interest in livelihood support, actual funding for livelihood interventions in 2011 was estimated at between $15 million and $20m, or roughly one-fiftieth of total international humanitarian assistance in the country, estimated at $800m. This is not far short of the total donor support to the Ministry of Agriculture’s budget for 2011. This is neither sustainable nor is it in the long-term interests of governments in the Horn of Africa or drought-affected communities. The ATF must promote increased development assistance in the drylands with an integrated ‘crisis modifier facility’. If successful, increasing donor assistance would increase the availability of funds for more timely support of livelihood-based drought management interventions in Ethiopia and in the region. If unsuccessful, drought management will continue to cost more and achieve limited impact, even if delivered in a more timely fashion than is currently the case.

3. The importance of coordination

Progress is being made to improve drought management coordination, including by the ATF at federal and regional levels. Whilst this is encouraging, more needs to be done to harmonise interventions and improve geographic coverage. For example, while the ATF harmonised prices for livestock destocking, inadequate progress has been made to harmonise animal health interventions, livestock feed supplementation and water point rehabilitation. While remaining enthusiastically supportive of innovation, the ATF must continue to improve levels of agriculture sector drought coordination and harmonisation amongst humanitarian actors at federal, regional and local levels. As a number of ATF members confirm, this is all the more important for agencies that, in times of drought, rely on short-term emergency ‘surge’ personnel, including team members with little or no previous experience of drought management in the region.


Drought is recurrent in the Horn and can be expected to return to the region in much the same way that it periodically returns to the drylands of western Australia and the south-west United States. Considerably poorer than their Australian and American counterparts, drought-affected communities in the drylands of the Horn of Africa are more vulnerable to drought and its effects and are more seriously affected. This article highlights some of the progress being made in the agriculture sector by the sector itself and local and national government, supported by development and humanitarian partners. This message was inadequately reported in the international media coverage of the drought of 2011. The recommendations for the ATF outlined above, if appropriately supported, could further strengthen and consolidate the progress being made to more effectively manage drought in the drylands of Ethiopia and reduce the costs associated with emergency drought response.

Adrian Cullis is the Co-Chair of the Disaster Risk Management–Agriculture Task Force. This article is based on a series of discussions including the December 2011 DRM–ATF Monthly Discussion Forum.


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