Weathering Famine

Sent from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia on Friday

It’s 3:30am here in Addis. Because we can’t sleep we’ve been flipping between CNN and BBC World News on TV. The lead stories, ironically, are about Ethiopia, where 6 million people are in danger of starvation. A 4-year long drought has left fields empty and killed livestock. Ethiopia’s agricultural minister, has asked the donor community for more than $120 million in emergency aid. The reporters noted that if “something” isn’t done soon, the world could see a repeat of the famines of the 1980s and late 1990s—in 1984 at least 1 million people died of starvation here and during the 1998-2000 famine, thousands of Ethiopians suffered because of lack of food.

The news coverage is missing something, though. Ethiopians, they fail to note, have always had to deal with drought and a dry climate. They’ve raised crops and livestock that have been bred over the centuries to withstand the weather conditions here. What’s different this time is that the droughts are more frequent—likely the most obvious effect of climate change in this region. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicts that crop yields across Africa could decline by 30 percent over the next few decades.

And while donations of food and money for emergency rations are  necessary in the short term, more investment is also needed in the types of agricultural innovations that will help farmers in Ethiopia and elsewhere weather, so to speak, climate change, rising fuel prices, unfair international trade practices and a range of other problems affecting sub-Saharan Africa. Water harvesting, agroforestry, rotational grazing practices, and the production of perennial crops which help store carbon in the soil are all ways to build resilience on farms and provide a buffer against hunger and famine. We’ll be documenting these kind of innovations as we travel to Aksum in Northern Ethiopia over the weekend.

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