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Drought-induced crop failure leads to Emergency in conflict-affected north

  • Food Security Outlook Update
  • Ethiopia
  • December 2023
Drought-induced crop failure leads to Emergency in conflict-affected north

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  • Key Messages
  • Current Situation
  • Seasonal Calendar for a Typical Year
  • Updated Assumptions
  • Projected Outlook through May 2024
  • Events that Might Change the Outlook
  • Partner
    Key Messages
    • Although the meher harvest is improving access to food for much of the population, Ethiopia remains among FEWS NET’s countries of highest concern amid drought in the conflict-affected north, heightened levels of active conflict in Amhara and Oromia regions, the aftermath of drought and floods in the south and southeast, and persistently poor economic conditions. Levels of acute food insecurity are most severe in the northern and southern regions. Areas of increasing concern include Tigray and northeastern Amhara, where the meher harvest failed due to drought and insecurity is restricting household income from labor migration that is typically critical for purchasing food. Additionally, the scale and frequency of planned food assistance is below the level of need.
    • Emergency (IPC Phase 4) outcomes, which are already occurring in parts of eastern, southern, and central Tigray, are expected to become more widespread across Tigray from February to May. Households that did not harvest and have limited access to social support and humanitarian food assistance likely face Catastrophe (IPC Phase 5). Social support – or communal sharing of food with worst-off households – has been critical to preventing more extreme outcomes marked by high levels of mortality; however, there are reports of hunger-related deaths. The importance of this support, along with the gradual increase in food assistance, is now rising in areas where crops failed. However, if social support and the gradual scale up of humanitarian food assistance does not continue at least at current levels and this leads to household coping capacity being exhausted more rapidly than currently projected, then more severe outcomes than currently mapped could occur.
    • The pastoral south and southeast remains of high concern, but projections of modest improvements in access to food and income are materializing following two consecutive rainy seasons in early and late 2023. Heavy rain began to subside in December, permitting floodwaters to recede and giving way to favorable pasture and water availability. Livestock births from the deyr/hageya reproduction cycle are providing food and income, and more households – including internally displaced persons – have planted off-season crops than previously anticipated. Nevertheless, many households have not recovered their livestock herds and had a limited ability to cultivate. As such, Emergency (IPC Phase 4) is expected to persist in Afder, Liban, Dawa, and parts of Shebelle and Borena zones until the next milking cycle in April/May. However, the risk of more severe outcomes, which FEWS NET has been monitoring since 2022, has now likely been alleviated. 

    Current Situation

    Rainfall:The deyr/hageya rains, which typically begin in October and end in December in the south and southeast, concluded with some of the highest cumulative totals on the 40-year historical record due to the ongoing, strong El Niño (Figure 1). In parts of Somali Region, rainfall was in excess of 300 percent of normal (Figure 2). The record-breaking rainfall led to extensive flooding in the Somali, Oromia, and South Ethiopia regions in October and November, causing considerable population displacement, pushing pastoralists to migrate their livestock to higher-ground areas, and resulting in the loss of main season crops among agropastoralists, mainly in riverine areas along Shebelle and Omo rivers. According to OCHA, as of mid-December, over 616,000 people were displaced and/or lost their homes across Somali, South Ethiopia, and South West Ethiopia regions. Additionally, based on the annual multi-partner seasonal assessment in December, nearly 27,000 livestock died and over 72,000 hectares of planted crops were destroyed. The destruction of roads and other essential infrastructure also caused short-term disruptions to market activity and trade flows. 

    Figure 1

    Rainfall rank for the October 1 to December 31, 2023
    Rainfall rank for Ethiopia

    Source: UCSB Climate Hazards Center

    Figure 2

    Rainfall as a percent of average for October 1 to December 31, 2023
    Rainfall as a percent of normal in Ethiopia

    Source: UCSB Climate Hazards Center

    However, the rains began to subside atypically early in December, and monthly rainfall totals in the pastoral south and southeast were below average. This permitted flood waters to recede starting in mid-to-late December, and populations displaced by the floods started to return to their area of origin. In agropastoral areas, households have been engaging in flood recession agriculture.

    Conflict: Clashes between armed groups in northern Amhara and central Oromia continue to cause population displacement, periodically impede market functionality, and disrupt local livelihoods, especially the population’s ability to engage in migratory labor. While the total number of conflict events across Ethiopia has declined slightly since August and the intensity of conflict has shown monthly variations, conflict nevertheless remained at high levels in December, especially in Amhara and Oromia regions (Figure 3). In Amhara, where the Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) and Fano militia have been fighting since August 2023, clashes are concentrated in Shewa, Wello, Gojjam, and South Gondar areas. In Oromia, where the ENDF is engaged in hostilities with the Oromo Liberation Front-Shane and various Fano militias, areas of conflict have shifted away from Wollega Zone to North Shewa, East Shea, Arsi, South West Shewa, and West Shewa zones. 

    Figure 3

    Trends in conflict in key regions in Ethiopia from Oct. 2022 to Dec. 2023
    Conflict graph for ethiopia

    Source: ACLED

    Displacement: Based on recent conflict and flood events, levels of displacement are assumed to be higher than available figures. According to IOM’s last assessment in August/September 2023, nearly 3.5 million people across Ethiopia were recognized as internally displaced persons (IDPs). The primary cause of displacement was conflict, followed by drought. However, insecurity posed access constraints to data collection, most notably in Amhara, where only about 13 percent of IOM’s planned locations were ultimately assessed. Additionally, data collection occurred prior to the floods in the south and southeast. While flood-displaced households are beginning to return home, it is likely that total national displacement – driven by recent displacement in Amhara and Somali regions – has increased relative to August/September. It is unlikely, however, that current levels of displacement have rebounded to the number of IDPs recorded during the previous assessment in June 2023, when 4.3 million people were identified as displaced. 

    Cropping conditions: National meher production is below average due to poor rainfall in northern Ethiopia, heavy rainfall in some areas of the south, a late start of seasonal rainfall, low access to agricultural inputs at the household level, and conflict-

    related crop losses during the cultivation and harvesting periods. As of December, meher harvesting activities are completed inmost parts of the country. However, in Borena and East Borena zones, late planted crops such as maize are at the vegetative stage and are not expected to reach maturity. 

    According to the findings of the multi-partner meher seasonal assessment, in which FEWS NET participated, production totals in Tigray are estimated to be 65 percent below average at the regional level. Moreover, extremely poor rainfall distribution at critical stages of crop development led to crop failure in certain woredas in the Central, East, South, and Southeast zones, with the highest incidence of crop failure observed along the border with Afar. In woredas such as Abergele Yechila and Atsbi, where the moisture deficit was extremely severe, production totals are just 5 to 10 percent of average. 

    Access constraints posed by conflict and insecurity in Amhara prevented the normal multi-partner seasonal assessment from being conducted. However, based on the multi-partner desk review and analysis of historical crop production data and variations of conflict intensity within the region, it is expected that 70 to 75 percent of the planned production in eight zones of the region will be harvested. The loss of production is attributed to drought, conflict-related crop losses, poor farm management, and inadequate agricultural input supply and distribution. According to the multi-partner seasonal assessment report, in some woredas of Wag Himra, a near-complete failure or very minimal production was reported.

    Oromia also saw crop production losses, but available data is inadequate to calculate an estimate of the deviation from normal production. Hazards during the production season included long dry spells, flooding, shortages of agricultural inputs, and pest and disease infestations. In addition, atypically heavy rains occurred during the peak crop maturity and harvesting periods causing yield losses, primarily in Arsi, West Arsi, West Hararghe, and the highlands of Bale and East Bale zones. 

    Production estimates for flood-affected areas of Somali Region are unavailable. However, in areas that depend on deyr/hageya rainfall, seasonal assessment findings of area planted and other field observations suggest an increase in the number of farmers that are planting crops as flood waters recede and an increase in cultivable area that farmers can plant relative to recent years, especially in Dollo and Korahe zones. However, below-average access to agricultural inputs is driving a decrease in area planted in Shabelle Zone. 

    Pasture and water availability: In the southern and southeastern pastoral areas, pasture and water are widely available (Figure 4) following the heavy deyr/hageya rains. These resources are expected to be sufficient for livestock consumption until the gu/genna rains start in March.  

    Figure 4

    Vegetation conditions as a percent of normal during the December 21 to 31 period
    Vegetation conditions compared to normal

    Source: USGS/FEWS NET

    In northern pastoral areas, there are considerable concerns about pasture availability; pasture is declining and there is inedible weed encroachment into pasture for livestock. Pasture is of particular concern in Zones 2 and 4 and areas of Zone 1 in Afar. Livestock migration started atypically early in November as opposed to the typical start in January. Livestock are migrating in search of pasture, predominately to grazing areas along the Awash and Aura rivers. 

    In most parts of Amhara and Tigray, feed, pasture, and water are available as normal for livestock; however, in Tigray, northeastern Amhara, and areas of Afar, it is important to note that many livestock died during the 2020-2022 conflict. In northeastern Amhara, the availability of crop residue ensures normal access to livestock feed and water. However, in other areas severely affected by drought, notably the Tekeze River catchment, water scarcity is already a concern, as is the current and future availability of feed.

    Livestock condition and productivity: Livestock body conditions are broadly normal nationally, but anomalies are observed in the north as well as in the pastoral south and southeast. In woredas that are drought-affected, notably those along the Tekeze River catchment both in Tigray and Amhara regions, livestock body conditions are deteriorating, exacerbated by the occurrence of disease. In Afar, cattle body conditions are declining, but shoats and camels still have near-normal body conditions. Similarly, household access to milk remains below average across Afar, particularly in the conflict and drought-affected areas, mainly due to low herd sizes. In southern and southeastern pastoral areas, calving, kidding, and milk production have been below average due to poor livestock conceptions. However, milk availability from shoats has improved since late September, while cattle milk production is expected in March 2024.

    Macroeconomy: Depreciation of the Ethiopian Birr (ETB) has continued, driven by low exports and government revenue alongside poor budgetary support. According to the National Bank of Ethiopia, the November 2023 exchange rate was about 55 ETB/USD, a 5 percent increase compared to the same time last year. Anecdotal reports suggest that the parallel exchange rate is more than twice that of the official rate. Depreciation has also contributed to increases in food and non-food prices nationwide, resulting in high inflation. According to the Central Statistics Agency, food inflation in November remained high at 30 percent on an annual basis, with non-food inflation at 26 percent. The slight decrease in food inflation observed now comparted to the same time last year is generally due to the ongoing meher harvest reaching markets and alleviating supply concerns.

    Staple food supply and prices: In most local markets, staple foods prices declined seasonally from October to November due to increased market supplies from the meher harvest. However, staple food prices remain well above those from last year and the three-year average. This trend is exemplified by Mekelle of Tigray Region, where maize and sorghum prices declined month-on-month by 28 percent and 10 percent, respectively; however, the price of white sorghum in November was still 8 percent higher than last year and 52 percent higher than the three-year average. 

    However, there are anomalies to the general seasonal trend in month-on-month food prices. In Afar, maize prices significantly increased month-on-month due to a local decline in grain supply to the market, high transportation costs, and the inflation of production costs. At the Logia marketplace, maize prices in November had risen by nearly 50 percent compared to November of last year and nearly 135 percent higher than the three-year average. 

    In Somali Region, the market spike observed between mid to late 2023 during the pause of food assistance led food prices to increase in response to rising market demand. While the pause of food assistance has now ended, cereal prices in November were more than double that recorded in November of last year and the three-year average. In Chereti market, for example, the price of maize in November was nearly 90 percent higher than last year and over 160 percent higher than the three-year average.

    Livestock supply and prices: Livestock market supply and prices have increased across much of the country compared to previous years due to good body conditions and inflationary market pressure, including in the pastoral areas of Afar and Somali regions. In Logia of Afar, goat prices were nearly 25 percent higher in November compared to the same time last year, and over 55 percent higher than the three-year average. Rising livestock prices have helped to partially restore the purchasing power of pastoral households, but the terms of trade still range from slightly to significantly below normal. In Gode of Somali Region, the income from a goat sale could buy about 70 kgs of maize in November, which was similar to the terms of trade at the same time last year but 9 percent lower than the three-year average. Regardless, many pastoralists in the south and southeast still have limited to no livestock following the drought, and they are therefore unable to access this source of income. Meanwhile, the sale of one goat in Logia, for instance, could purchase around 44 kilograms (kgs) of maize in November, which provided the average family of seven with a maximum of 13 days of food, compared to around 50 to 60 kgs in November last year and the three-year average of around 70 kgs (Figure 5).

    Areas affected by conflict and insecurity are an exception to the national trend. This is particularly the case in the border region areas of Amhara, Afar, and Tigray. In these locations, livestock prices have exhibited a declining trend since June 2023 due to the adverse impacts of insecurity on demand for livestock. 

    Figure 5

    Kilograms of maize that a goat can purchase in Logia, Afar Region
    ToT trends in Logia market

    Source: FEWS NET

    Labor income and self-employment: Following the meher harvest and threshing activities, there has been an increase in agricultural labor opportunities and related wage rates. Average daily wage rates in November increased in most regions of the country compared to November last year and remained mostly stable compared to October, except for in conflict and drought-affected areas. Across markets in Oromia, the average daily agricultural wage rate was ~305 ETB per day in November 2023, up from 220 ETB per day in November last year, a near 40 percent increase. The increase in wage rates has somewhat alleviated pressure on households’ financial access to food, but persistently high cereal prices continue to limit the purchasing power of poor households who depend on labor income. 

    Humanitarian food assistance: Following the initial prioritization of refugees and IDPs under the plan to gradually resume food assistance deliveries by 2024, other population groups began to receive humanitarian food assistance distributions in mid-November. According to the Food Cluster, a total of 3.2 million people received food assistance nationally in November, inclusive of 1.2 million people in Tigray. While households considered most at risk of severe food insecurity are being prioritized for targeting, the ration size and number of people receiving assistance is insufficient to significantly moderate the size of their food consumption deficits across a large proportion of the population.

    In Amhara, according to the Food Cluster, over 267,000 people received assistance in November, increasing to nearly 598,000 in December. In Oromia, food was distributed to nearly 740,000 people in November, though this declined to 378,000 in December. In Tigray, more than 1.3 million people received assistance in November, declining slightly to nearly 1.2 million in December, while 132,800 IDPs and 114,200 host community members in four towns were targeted for in-cash assistance. In Afar, food distributions by WFP have not occurred for more than six months following the pause of food aid in the region, except for minimum life-saving responses by a few partners, the regional government, gifts from voluntary individuals, and social support.

    Cholera outbreak: According to the Health Cluster, the cholera outbreak remained active in December, though there is a decline in the number of woredas reporting active cases. The majority of active cases are in Somali, Oromia, and Amhara regions. Out of the 296 affected-woredas, only 57 have an active outbreak. Cholera can exacerbate malnutrition, especially in children, by weakening their immune systems.

    Acute malnutrition: Levels of acute malnutrition remain of high concern, notably in Afar, Amhara, and Tigray regions. In Tigray, screening data collected between August and October suggested the proxy GAM rate was nearly 27 percent, within Critical (GAM 15 to 29.9 percent) levels. These levels of acute malnutrition are similar to the results of the August SMART survey conducted the Nutrition Cluster with support of UNICEF and AAH Canada, indicating limited to no seasonal improvements in acute malnutrition following the harvest. Though the August SMART survey did not find elevated all-cause mortality rates, mortality data are notoriously difficult to collect, and the findings of Critical GAM in the same SMART survey in combination with other reports of hunger-related deaths warrant heightened concern and close monitoring, particularly given that the harvest should typically alleviate levels of acute malnutrition and starvation that leads to mortality. In addition to ground reports of hunger-related deaths, a regional government study conducted around the same time of the SMART survey in August 2023 (though with a notably longer recall period, at nine months) identified cases of hunger-related deaths; however, the methodology differs from what would be required to understand the degree to which these deaths represent high levels of excess mortality and cannot be aligned with an IPC Phase definition.

    While the above data suggests a deteriorating malnutrition situation in Tigray, admissions of children to therapeutic feeding programs (TFP) show a declining monthly trend. The November 2023 TFP admission level is lower by 6 percent compared to last month; still, total admissions remained higher by 232 and 343 percent compared to the same month of last year and the five-year average, respectively. The declining trend in 2023 may be a misleading observation and should be interpreted with caution, as: 1) many of the health facilities in conflict-affected woredas do not provide the same level of TFP services as they did prior to the 2020-2022 conflict (resulting in a low reporting rate) or are currently not functional; and 2) nutrition cluster partners are not conducting intensive screening campaigns as they were prior to the pause of assistance.

    In Amhara, TFP admissions declined slightly from September to October but were 41 percent higher than the five-year average. The Nutrition Cluster carried out a Rapid Nutrition Assessment in Janamora and Telemet, which are conflict-affected woredas of North Gondar Zone, and found Extremely Critical (GAM by MUAC ≥30 percent) levels in these areas. While there has been a decline in TFP admissions on the regional level, this may be attributed to the availability of the harvest in areas unaffected by conflict, and it is highly likely that levels of acute malnutrition are elevated in other conflict-affected areas beyond those assessed in North Gondar. 

    In Afar, a rapid nutrition assessment conducted by the regional Disaster Risk Management Commission and Regional Emergency Nutrition Coordination Unit in October in Berhale and Megale woredas of Zone 2 also recorded levels of acute malnutrition within the Critical (GAM 15 to 29.9 percent) range. These malnutrition findings warrant high concern for severe outcomes. 

    In the Somali Region, nutrition screenings in Kalafo and East-Imey woredas in Shebelle Zone in November found proxy GAM levels estimates at 42 and 20 percent, respectively. These levels of acute malnutrition are extremely high and are most likely driven by cholera following the October/November 2023 floods.   

    Seasonal Calendar for a Typical Year
    Ethiopia Seasonal Calendar

    Source: FEWS NET

    Updated Assumptions

    The assumptions used to develop FEWS NET's most likely scenario for Ethiopia Food Security Outlook for June 2023 to January 2024 remain unchanged. 

    Projected Outlook through May 2024

    Food assistance needs are expected to rise from December to May as food security conditions deteriorate in the more densely populated areas of the country. Emergency (IPC Phase 4) and Crisis (IPC Phase 3) outcomes are expected in both northern and southern/southeastern areas of Ethiopia; years of conflict and drought in the 2023 June to September kiremt season in the north and years of drought in the south/southeast, respectively, resulted in extreme difficulty in household access to food and income. In early to mid-2024, food security conditions are expected to deteriorate in northern, central, and western areas of the country as household food stocks decline and households become increasingly market reliant, but with low income to make market purchases amid high and increasing food prices. In contrast, in the south and southeast pastoral areas, food security is expected to exhibit an improving trend due to the favorable rainy seasons driving improvements in food and income from livestock.  

    In Tigray, Emergency (IPC Phase 4) outcomes are now expected in December and January in areas where the meher harvest failed. In these areas of central and eastern Tigray, households have no food stocks and limited access to income from livestock and labor migration for food purchases. These households are relying on social support and extreme coping strategies such as begging. The resumption of humanitarian food assistance is supporting food consumption among beneficiaries; however, the scale and frequency of distributions is expected to be inadequate relative to the size of the total population in need and depth of household kilocalorie deficits in the medium term. In February, wider areas of Tigray are expected to deteriorate from Crisis (IPC Phase 3) to Emergency (IPC Phase 4) with the early start of the lean season; households are expected to have no food stocks from own produced food and will rely on limited income from firewood/charcoal sales, labor, and livestock to purchase food. 

    In the Tekeze River catchment area, several woredas in North Gondar and Wag Himra are expected to be in Emergency (IPC Phase 4) due to limited to no harvest resulting from drought and conflict and a limited ability to access income. Neighboring areas of northeastern Amhara are expected to face Crisis (IPC Phase 3) outcomes due to production losses associated with conflict and below-average June to September kiremt rainfall. Household purchasing power is expected to be lower than normal, associated with high food prices and below-average income. 

    In Zones 2 and 4 of Afar, Emergency (IPC Phgase 4) and Crisis (IPC Phase 3) outcomes are expected to persist throughout most of the projection period. In these areas, households have small herd sizes following the large-scale losses due to the conflict in Tigray as well as drought. Access to milk from own production and food purchasing capacity from the market will remain limited. Poor and displaced households are expected to have minimal access to food and income even through coping strategies. The ongoing disease outbreaks, including malaria, cholera, dengue fever, and measles, as well as shortages of potable water supplies, are expected to persist and contribute to and/or cause widespread malnutrition and child morbidity, particularly in the conflict-affected woredas

    In the southern and southeastern pastoral areas, milk production and availability are expected to improve from January to May. Livestock holdings, particularly of shoats, are anticipated to moderately increase, which will in turn increase income from both livestock and livestock product sales. Additionally, livestock prices are expected to increase further around March/April due to seasonal livestock demand during the Hajj. These price increases will slightly improve income and access to food for the majority of the pastoralists, many of whom will remain in or improve to Crisis (IPC Phase 3) outcomes. However, in Afder, Liban, Dawa, and parts of Shebelle and Borena zones, the cumulative effect of the prolonged drought has eroded livelihood assets, and cash income from livestock sales has remained significantly below average; Emergency (IPC Phase 4) is expected to persist in these areas. FEWS NET had previously communicated a risk of more extreme outcomes in these areas if seasonal food and income from livestock births and milk production did not materialize as anticipated; fortunately, however, food and income sources did materialize as FEWS NET forecasted, and this has now alleviated the risk of more extreme outcomes.

    Events that Might Change the Outlook

    Several of the events that might change the outlook identified in the Ethiopia Food Security Outlook for October 2023 to January 2024 remain credible. However, the risk of extreme flooding and the risk that livestock production does not materialize as anticipated in the south/southeast has ended. There is also a new event that might change the outlook as detailed below.

    Table 1Possible events over the next eight months that could change the most-likely scenario
    AreaEventImpact on food security outcomes
    Tigray Social support and humanitarian food assistance do not continue at least at current levels In the most likely scenario, social support – or communal sharing of food with worst-off households – is expected to continue at levels similar to what has been observed in recent months. Additionally, humanitarian food assistance is expected to reach at least 25 percent of the population in various woredas. If levels of social support to the worst-off households and levels of food assistance decline below current levels, this is expected to lead to a more rapid exhaustion of household coping capacity than currently projected. Should this occur, then more severe outcomes than currently mapped would be likely.

    Recommended citation: FEWS NET. Ethiopia Food Security Outlook Update December 2023: Drought-induced crop failure leads to Emergency in conflict-affected north, 2023.

    This Food Security Outlook Update provides an analysis of current acute food insecurity conditions and any changes to FEWS NET's latest projection of acute food insecurity outcomes in the specified geography over the next six months. Learn more here.

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