Deep trouble in Ethiopia

Posted: 29 January 2003

Villagers in Ethiopia say climate change has forced them to dig for water where it used to flow freely. John Vidal reports on the spiral of little rain, crop failure, huge debt and human destitution.

The waterhole just outside the town of Ruka in east Haraghe province, Ethiopia, is surrounded from dawn to dusk these days by never fewer than 1,000 cattle and almost as many people. The majority of the pastoralist and subsistence farmers walk their animals 30 miles, three times a week to be there and, in scenes reminiscent of rough diamond mining in Brazil or Ghana, they dig ever deeper to haul the precious water up 12 or more metres to give to their stock.

Women on their way to awater spring, Ethiopia.© Franco Mattioli/IFADEvery day the waterhole gets deeper and more herds and people arrive. Within a month it will be bone dry and the people will have had to migrate elsewhere. Just as likely, though, their animals will die and they will become destitute. As a massive drought bites across large areas of Ethiopia, so the options for people and animals get narrower.

Yet just 50 years ago, say the old people, Ruka was a small village with a waterhole that reputedly never ran dry, surrounded by land bursting with crops and trees. There was wildlife in the woods, and the communities were self-sufficient. There were long droughts, but the communities usually recovered quickly.

Today, because of overcultivation and grazing, the nearby land is becoming degraded and semi-arid. Ruka has grown into a regional capital, and the sand billows around the cows as they scratch what used to be good soil. The crops have totally failed and the local authorities are desperate to secure enough food to prevent malnutrition and migration.

Degraded land

Great parts of Ethiopia, just like Ruka, are now in a closely related ecological and human crisis. The rains have failed over large areas, and in December the UN and the government said 11.2m people needed food aid, with a further 3m more likely to do so this year. At the same time, one of the world's most ecologically rich and diverse countries is in danger of losing all its forests. As the spectre of malnutrition grows, so the spiral of land degradation, crop failure, human destitution and further drought is quickening.

An example of soil erosion, Ethiopia© Alberto Conti/IFAD"In the past four years we have not had enough rain", says Kasim, the deputy administrator for the district. "The food shortages are greater than ever and it is getting worse every year. But at root of this is an environmental problem. The land has become seriously degraded, the droughts are more frequent now, so people cannot grow crops in the same way. We are very worried what will happen".

The reasons for the current food emergency are complex. They include poor rains, bad terms of international trade, the country's massive debt and the pattern of land ownership - most is owned by the government. But in a country dominated by subsistence farmers living on the economic edge, one of the root causes is the deteriorating state of the land itself.

Ecological crisis

Fifty years ago, almost 40 per cent of Ethiopia was covered by 42m ha of forests, but now this has dropped to just 2.7 per cent of the country. What is left is likely to disappear completely within 20 years, says the UN emergencies unit in Addis Ababa. Meanwhile, some 144,000 ha of forests are being lost each year, says the country's environmental protection agency (EPA).

Most of the forest has been lost to speculators opening up new agricultural areas to feed a rapidly growing domestic population, but also to create large areas to grow export crops like coffee. More forest is lost annually to fires, which can devastate large areas.

In 2000, more than 2m ha of forest was destroyed in a series of uncontrollable blazes started by people clearing land. The remainder of the annual forest loss is largely attributable to an almost insatiable demand for charcoal and firewood - which 90 per cent of people in Ethiopia rely on for cooking.

In Ethiopia mainly women and childrenspend many hours a day carryingfirewood over long distances.As a result of the deforestation in Ethiopia, some 2m ha have now become irreversibly barren, says the EPA, and some 1.9bn tonnes of soil is eroded every year. The environment in many places has been steadily changing from forests to bush to savannah and then to semi-arid.

How far the forest loss is directly affecting the climate and leading to more frequent droughts and crop failures is uncertain, but ask anyone over 30 in Ethiopia's rural areas and they will say that temperatures are higher these days, and the patterns of rainfall and drought are far more variable than just 20 years ago.

"There are fewer rains, they are less reliable, and the droughts are now more frequent and widespread", says Mohamed Farar, a village leader from the even more drought-stricken Shinille district 100 miles further north.

Climate change

Deforestation is known to change the "albedo" - or amount of reflected solar radiation - of the land surface, so affecting local climate. It can also affect the water cycle in the area. On a larger scale, deforestation contributes to global warming through released carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.

"Here the soil has all been washed away from the valleys, making it difficult for people to grow food," says Ilmigot Gedi, an official with the Shinille town council. "When the rains come now, they create huge gullies and the area under cultivation just washes away. The water does not stop on the land - it just goes straight through it."

Part of the problem is overgrazing by Ethiopia's massive animal population. According to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation, Ethiopia's 9m farmers have 30m cattle, 22m sheep, 17m goats, 1m camels, 3m horses and over 5m donkeys.

But the present hunger is itself destroying the environment further and potentially making it harder for people to ever fully recover. In the past two months, thousands of people have moved into the Bole national park and are cutting down more trees.

"When people run short of food, they cut down the trees to produce charcoal and try to sell it in the large towns," says Kasim, in Ruka. "We have tried to stop them doing that but it is hard. People are definitely contributing to the degradation of their environment. They are far more vulnerable than before, and becoming desperate."

John Vidal is Environment Correspondent with The Guardian.This article was first published in The Guardian (December 11, 2002). All rights reserved. Reproduced with kind permission.