ETHIOPIA : SPECIAL REPORT A crisis of climate, food - and population

Posted: 25 February 2009

Author: Karen Hardee and Kimberly Rovin

This month, the United Nations warned that Ethiopia's crop prospects are decreasing due to inadequate rainfall - as the changing climate brings ever more frequent droughts. At the same time, Ethiopia's population of some 80 million is on course to double within the next 27 years. This specially commissioned report looks at the prospects for Ethiopia's farming families as the climate heats up and the population grows.

Village boys, Ethiopia
Village boys, Ethiopia
Village boys, Ethiopia. Photo: Population Action International
When Ethiopia announced its 2007 census results showing a population of nearly 74 million, the results were disputed, with the real figure put closer to 80 million. Further, by the time the results were actually announced in May 2008, another three million people had already been added to Ethiopia's population. With a growth rate of 2.6 per cent per year, the country's population is on track to double within another 27 years.

In addition to this rapid population growth, the country is facing a number of environmental challenges, exacerbated by changes in climate. Average annual temperatures are projected to rise 3.1º C by 2060 and 5.1º C by 2090, with severe implications for productivity of the land. Can Ethiopia cope with climate changes that are occurring now and with inevitable future changes at this pace of population growth?

Ethiopia population projections
Ethiopia population projections
Ethiopia population proejctions. Source: UN Population Division. 2007. World Population Prospects: The 2006 Revision. New York: UNPD
One way to answer that question is to look at food security, a critical indicator of country well-being and one that is intimately tied to climate changes. Droughts, the most important climate-related hazard affecting Ethiopia, are occurring more frequently, giving the country less time to recover before the next event, reducing agricultural yields, and sentencing millions to food insecurity. In February 2009, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) noted that Ethiopia's crop prospects are decreasing due to inadequate rainfall, and the country is experiencing severe localized food insecurity as a result of crop failures and severe poverty.

Importantly, more than eight in ten people in Ethiopia earn their living from farming, most of it rain-fed and highly vulnerable to drought. Research by the International Food Policy Research Institute in several regions in Ethiopia found that farmers are vulnerable to climate change and that fewer than half (42 per cent) had done anything to adapt their agricultural practices.

Despite some advances in reducing poverty indicators, including a rising gross enrollment rate in primary schools (for both girls and boys) and access to health care, water and sanitation, no gain was made in reducing the severity of food poverty in Ethiopia in the five years between 1999/00 to 2004/05. The country has 8.3 million people who are chronically food insecure and another 6.7 million who face transitory problems with food insecurity - a continuously growing population is only exacerbating this situation.

In the 1950s, when the United Nations began its population projections, population density in Ethiopia was 19 persons per sq. km; in 2010 it is projected to be around 80 and in 2050 to be more than 150 persons per sq. km. These projections show a population density that is eight times greater than it was 50 years ago while simultaneously the pressure to increase agricultural production is getting stronger. However, as families grow over time, plots are divided into smaller pieces that are less able to support the families that tend them. In 2000, 87 per cent of farms in Ethiopia were small, under 2 hectares. Population does feature in Ethiopia's development plans, including the country's climate change adaptation strategy. But the picture is mixed. Creating a balance between economic development and population growth is one of the eight pillars of Ethiopia's Plan for Accelerated and Sustained Development to End Poverty (PASDEP). Access to contraception is included in the plan, but receives less attention than HIV/AIDS. This is a huge mismatch of needs and resources, given that the unmet need for family planning affects 33 per cent of married women, while HIV prevalence is estimated at 1.4 per cent.

Neglected factor

Annual progress reports for the Poverty Plan hardly mention family planning or reproductive health. This, despite findings from a 2004/5 survey on people's views of poverty and services, conducted by the Poverty Action Network of Ethiopia (PANE), which found that few people "reported getting contraception advice from government facilities," and that "delivery of contraceptive services needs to be greatly intensified."

PASDEP aims to increase contraceptive prevalence to 60 per cent by the end of the plan period in 2009/10, a tall order since contraceptive prevalence was measured at only 15 per cent nationally by the 2005 Demographic and Health Survey (DHS). Unmet need for family planning of 33 per cent means that one-third of women in the country want to stop childbearing or space their next birth by at least two years, but they are not currently using contraception. Simply put, as a result of lack of access to family planning, Ethiopian women are having more children than they want.

Ethiopia's last Population Policy is from 1993. The country adopted a Reproductive Health Strategy in 2006, which skirts the issue of population and seems even to obscure the fact that women and men need access to the means to have the number of children they want to have.

"The objectives of this RH [Reproductive Health] strategy is subsumed within the Strategy's overall goal statement, which is to: Build on the momentum occasioned by the Millennium Development Goals to garner the multisectoral support need to meet the reproductive and sexual health needs of our culturally diverse population - one characterized by its youthfulness, geographic dispersion, conjugaility, and persisting gender inequalities." Ethiopia's National Adaptation Programme of Action, submitted to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) by the Ministry of Water Resources and the National Meteorological Agency in 2007, acknowledges that population pressure is one of the key causes of climate change vulnerability in Ethiopia, but does not include any projects that address the country's ability to accommodate rapid population growth.

Water stressed green bean plants
Water stressed green bean plants
Water stressed green bean plants at the Melkassa Agricultural Research Center, Nazret, Ethiopia. Source: Population Action International
Projects that are included relate mainly to physical adaptation measures - to early warning systems for drought and floods, agricultural improvement, irrigation and water systems, capacity building, research and development, and carbon sequestration. One project relates to health - strengthening malaria containment.

While these projects will undoubtedly help Ethiopia to adapt to climate change, they fail to take into account social adaptation strategies, of which family planning and reproductive health should be a part.

Writing about Ethiopia, Helene Gayle, President of CARE, states that, "It's helpful sometimes to put aside what people have no control over, like weather and commodity prices, and empower them with something in their reach - the size of a family for example."

Integrated approach

At a recent workshop on agricultural adaptation to climate change in Ethiopia that focused on farming solutions, there was wide recognition that climate-related changes were affecting farm work, moreover two farmers were quoted as saying: "We farmers don't have access to family planning and we are moving more and more into poverty."

So can Ethiopia adapt to climate change with its growing population? Under current and projected climate conditions, with the present lack of serious policy attention to 'population' and the contraceptive and reproductive health needs of women and men, it is difficult to see how.

Threshing grain with oxen, Ethiopia
Threshing grain with oxen, Ethiopia
Threshing grain with oxen, Ethiopia. Photo: Population Action International
However, some projects do exist that combine population, health and environment issues. The Ethiopian Wetlands and Natural Resources Association, for example, is working on an integrated wetland-watershed project in South Western Ethiopia, which helps the local community protect the environment against climate change damage through improved resource management, and also has a strong reproductive health and family planning component.

Preliminary results suggest that the family planning piece of this project has been well received and that contraceptive use, initially very low, may now be used by over 30 per cent of married couples. Given Ethiopia's low contraceptive prevalence rate, these results are noteworthy, and show that Ethiopian men and women want contraception, and will use it to plan their families when information and contraceptive supplies are available.

Another multi-purpose project is being implemented by the Environment and Development Society of Ethiopia (LEM) in both the Oromiya and Amhara regions of the country. It seeks to change attitudes towards big families and increase the use of family planning among women of reproductive age by 10 per cent, while improving environmental health, sanitation and conservation measures. It is a relatively new, and not yet evaluated, example of making family planning an integral part of efforts to preserve the environment.

In Ethiopia's situation of rapid population growth, environmental degradation and encroaching climate changes, the country's capacity to adapt may well depend on such integrated programmes. The newly established National Climate Change Forum might also look towards such integrated programmes as it seeks to lead Ethiopia forward in the fight against climate change.

Karen Hardee and Kimberly Rovin have been undertaking research in Ethiopia on behalf of the Washington-based Population Action International.

For more information on the projects mentioned in this report please see Consortium for Integration of Population, Health, and Environment Ethiopia (CIPHE)