Ethiopia’s Near Total Crop Failure Blamed on Global Warming, Disinvestment

African countries are facing an unprecedented drought due to climate change and inadequate investment in technology, says UN’s Dr. Shukri Ahmed

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Story Transcript

JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.

Record-breaking temperatures and one of the strongest El Ninos ever has created conditions for extreme drought across Africa. From Ethiopia to Zimbabwe, crop failures have caused more than 36 million people to face food insecurity. Zimbabwe’s president, Robert Mugabe, declared a state of emergency in February, while in Ethiopia, one of the hardest-hit countries with four-fifths of its crops failing, it’s triggered UNICEF to declare that 10 million Ethiopians need food aid.

With us to discuss this crisis and what can be done about it is our guest, Dr. Shukri Ahmed. He is the deputy strategic program leader for Resilience, which is the food and agriculture organization of the United Nations. Thank you so much for joining us, Dr. Ahmed.

SHUKRI AHMED: Thank you for having me.

DESVARIEUX: So, Dr. Ahmed, we mentioned Ethiopia and Zimbabwe. But what other countries in Africa are facing drought, and who is being most greatly affected?

AHMED: Yes. As you rightly indicated, the worst affected is Ethiopia at the moment, and Zimbabwe are now one of the countries that are [inaud.]. But the other countries in southern Africa, specifically like Mozambique, Malawi, Lesotho, and even South Africa itself, which is able to withstand, of course, the shock, has been affected very badly.

DESVARIEUX: And the people, which community specifically?

AHMED: These are specifically the, of course, the farmers and pastoralists in Ethiopia are the worst affected, with hundreds of thousands of cattle and livestock heads actually dying, wiping out years of accumulation of those agricultural assets and capital.

By the same token, it is also farmers and vulnerable groups that are being affected, that depend on these seasonal rains for their livelihoods. And that’s actually a very worrisome–and there’s millions and millions of people across these countries that have been affected.

DESVARIEUX: Dr. Ahmed, how much of this crop failure is man-made? I’m going to point to a recent report, it came out of the National [Academics] of Sciences. And they’ve linked extreme weather events like drought to climate change. Based on your experience, what do you make of that assessment?

AHMED: Actually, for that assessment, science is actually still trying to see specifically for El Nino. Because El Nino events are [rare], and climatologists and weather actually experts indicating that the El Nino phenomenon was there. And trying to see what the causality and the linkage is between the two. Is it still actually an issue for research.

But one of the things that is put forth is whether climate change actually would increase, either for instance the intensity of El Nino or the frequency of El Nino happening during the years is now for research. But actually, we have El Nino phenomenon on its own right is a phenomenon that happens once in a while, and it comes in cycles. One of the things that is not [known] yet is that it is always different, and there is no specific pattern at the given time that it will happen in this country or that country, is actually, it happens in different formats.

Whether, then, the happenings of climate change in different parts of the world would then combine to the effect of El Nino to make it much more is also a way for research. So El Nino in its own right is now what we are actually trying to see its impact, and trying to predict so that countries will take precautionary measures.

DESVARIEUX: Let’s talk about the impact of this current drought and how it compares to droughts in the past. Is what we’re seeing now different from the past? Because I’m sure there are going to be Westerners out there who sort of view sort of this crisis as another African famine. Sort of like the cynical view. What else is new, essentially. But for you, who’s been studying this, do you see what is happening now, sort of the economic insecurity itself, is this a drought on another level?

AHMED: The drought is another level. It’s very true. And the intensity of it and the level of temperature that actually accompanied this drought is actually one of the worst. And it is at a very, very high level. And it shows by the number of livestock deaths, hundreds of thousands of livestock deaths, actually is testimony to its intensity this time.

The only difference we see specifically in Ethiopia is the economic growth that has come in the last several years was able to withstand, to some extent, actually the shock. Specifically the infrastructure growth that we have seen and others have helped vulnerable groups who actually tried to use those systems to ameliorate and mitigate the impact of this drought. But the depth and the intensity of it is such that no one country can be able to absorb the overall problems, and the need for a concerted effort is now sought from the international community.

DESVARIEUX: Okay, great. I’m glad you mentioned that, because I want to talk about solutions. How do we go beyond aid, and just sort of alleviating people’s urgent need for food? What needs to be done on the continent to ensure more food security, especially with climate change only going to make things worse?

AHMED: I think that’s a very good question. And [inaud.] was [inaud.], actually, to invest in this kind of specifically in the way that you have put it.

Of course, first and foremost we need to save lives. So the first thing would be, naturally of course, to help and assist the people that have been affected, and also saving the immediate livelihood impact. In particular, trying to save the lives of [sector] by providing the feed and the other, actually, interventions that are required.

So this is ongoing, and the international community is actually responding at the moment, although it still needs to go a little bit beyond. However, as you rightly indicated, this problem is a problem that we know. Such phenomenon and such hazards, like drought and other related–because El Nino in certain cases, it also brings devastating floods, would happen. And it would happen in the future, as well. But that, translating itself into disaster, it is in our capacity to actually stop that. It shouldn’t translate itself into disaster.

But this needs well-coordinated, planned way of putting in place risk reduction methods. And disaster risk reduction is now one of the ways that countries are taking up, international communities. But it needs the efforts, resources that it needs to invest more. And a lot of studies have already shown that a dollar spent earlier will actually withstand these kinds of droughts, actually saves $4-5 of later responding.

DESVARIEUX: Dr. Ahmed, can you just be more specific about these risk reduction methods? What are we talking about here?

AHMED: It is drought, and we know the frequency of those droughts happening in different parts of the world. The things that need to be done in areas is how to bring in the inputs and mechanisms like water, if it is in that place. If not, it is what type of crops that need, can be adapted for the area. There are now different types of seeds that can withstand droughts that are not available to poor farmers, and those could be made available. On the other hand, for the livestock sector, there are specific market-based interventions that actually try to help farmers sell their livestock early on, for instance, when drought starts to occur, when they still have their weight and haven’t lost their weight. And then later, through a mechanism of reinstituting when the rains come.

So these things are put in place in several, now, places. And we have seen very encouraging results of this, and we would like this to be actually available in countries like Ethiopia, like Zimbabwe, and others, for them to be just the norm, and saving later and responding in a big way.

DESVARIEUX: Dr. Ahmed, there are going to be some folks who are saying, these seeds that you’re discussing, are these genetically modified seeds that you’re advocating for? And can you be more specific when you say this is working? Which countries, where exactly is it working?

AHMED: Actually, the type of seeds are improved seeds. They’re not necessarily genetically modified, but these are improved seeds that actually withstand tested in the areas. Even within a country you can find certain type of seeds that could be improved so that they become actually drought-resistant.

So these types of technologies need to be brought forth so that they are tested and adapted to the specific areas that we are targeting.

DESVARIEUX: Okay. And you said it’s working in some places. Where is it working, and for whom? And can you measure that?

AHMED: Even within Ethiopia. But other areas like, desert areas like even some good examples that were done in Israel, for instance. And in some other parts of the world, especially Asia. Some in China. And others have tried and tested different types of technologies and seeds that work.

For instance, the drip irrigation system. It means a bit of investment at the beginning, but the way it conserves water is a very big way, just by, you know, digging water, you can use water and save and improve on them. And these are some technologies that are available out there. But some of the countries, to use them, they would need an earlier investment in terms of training, but also in terms of availing the technology.

DESVARIEUX: All right. Dr. Ahmed, thank you so much for joining us.

AHMED: Thank you for having me.

DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.

End

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