"We’ve had drought for the last five years, and this year it’s continued."
These were the words of Koresha Abti, a mother of ten from Kalabaydh, a remote village in eastern Ethiopia, when we talked in April. I was visiting with an NGO just as the drought was reaching crisis point, and her words heightened my alarm with their implication – that though this year’s drought was exceptionally bad, drought itself was no longer exceptional. Hanura Awalay, a 68-year-old grandmother who has lived in the sparse settlement of Gobablay her whole life, agreed. ‘Previously, with rain, and our farm, there were crops, results, but in the last few years, drought has come frequently and led to crop failure’.
We often think of the impact of fossil fuels as a far-off threat, but these ordinary women hint at a different reality, one which scientific research is increasingly confirming: their impact is already being felt now. Climates are changing now.
It’s impossible to definitively attribute Ethiopia’s current drought to man-made climate change; just like the consequences of that, so the causes of drought are varied and complex. But the evidence suggests that the climate is changing quick, and aggravating these other issues, too. According to UNDP, the average annual temperature increased by 1.3°C between 1960 and 2006, and though studies haven’t found any significant change in annual rainfall overall, recent analysis suggests it has reduced in southern and eastern Ethiopia (the most drought-prone areas) in the last 15 years, mostly during the – critical – main rainy season. An assessment of two of the most drought-prone areas also found that the distribution of the rain during the year is changing, with rains becoming more unpredictable and faling shorter, more intense episodes. More rain and yet more drought – with communities and the government in one of the worst-affected areas reporting that drought now occurs every 1-2 years – down from every 6-8 before.
But climate change here is just getting started: though models vary, UNDP projections, for example, suggest an annual temperature increase of 1°C in the 2020s and up to 3.9°C by the 2080s, as well as more annual rainfall and changing rainfall patterns, with heavier short rains and lighter long rains in the south.
This is not good news. Ethiopia, like Africa as a whole, is highly vulnerable to climate change. 85% of Ethiopians depend on mainly rain-fed agriculture and most of the rest on pastoralism, but, as a 2001 IPCC report sums up bluntly, in countries with systems like this, ‘the productivity of many livestock, pasture and crop species, which are already near their maximum temperature and drought tolerance, is expected to decrease, even with minimal increases in temperature’.
An assessment of two(Download PDF of Climate Change study, Full Assessement Report) of the most drought-prone areas of the country, Borena and Shinile, shows that they’re already experiencing the effects of the changing climate, like more frequent drought and increased heat: less pasture, degraded land, less water, exhausting journeys to the nearest source, food insecurity, dying and weak livestock, falling prices for those still left, crop failure, families migrating, students dropping out of school; in these areas, intense rains destroy crops, but elsewhere in Ethiopia, more and worse flooding is another threat the changing climate poses.
Koresha lives in Shinile, and is no stranger to this cruel catalogue. Climate change combines with other social, environmental and political problems to erode the traditional resilience of land and people. ‘I used to rely on pastoralism to support myself and my family. But now, because of the drought, all my livestock have died.’ Without livestock, a pastoralist’s primary income source, she relies on wage labour and occasional relief food, day-to-day coping strategies; another common coping mechanism is burning charcoal, which can clear huge swathes of forest (deforestation being another of Ethiopia’s problems) and thus the land’s own carbon-neutralising capacity; it’s a sad irony of fossil fuels, how harmful combustion on one end can force the same behaviour on the other, for reasons which could scarcely be more different; a vicious cycle of environmental degradation.
Ethiopia. Women participants in Oxfam's cash-for-work projects in southern Ethiopia. The project means that women get a good income - at a time when money is scarce and livestock assets are weak and dying - to help build things that benefit the whole community, such as latrines and dams Photo by Oxfam East Africa.
Another irony: that Ethiopia is a land of fossils, home indeed of Lucy, the oldest human ancestor, but of limited fossil fuel use; and yet this country, ranked at 106 in the UN’s 2008 rankingof carbon emissions, contributing 0.02%, finds itself so vulnerable to its effects. But Ethiopia is by no means immune to controversy over its generation of energy – the dilemma of serving its large and fast-growing population has led to a hugely contentious series of hydroelectric dams. The UN has called for suspension of construction for the latest, Gibe III, over concerns about its effect on the River Omo and its ecosystems, not to mention the 500,000 people who depend on it.
There’s no easy answers. Finding and promoting more environmentally-friendly energy sources can itself be fraught with difficulties and contradictions, and the best way forward is not always clear. One thing, however, is. Man-made climate change is already happening, with damaging consequences to communities who are already very vulnerable – in Ethiopia and elsewhere. According to a UNFCCC report, (download PDF 'Impacts') for example, for Africa, ‘under climate change much agricultural land will be lost, with shorter growing seasons and lower yield’.
Promoting cleaner energy is vital to limiting climate change. In the words of these researchers: