Divided by the East African Rift Valley into highlands and lowlands, Ethiopia has an extraordinarily diverse climate, from the cool and rainy Dega highlands to the Danakil depression – one of the hottest, driest places on Earth.

The economy is based on agriculture, which accounts for half GDP, 60 per cent of exports and 80 per cent of total employment. But only 1 per cent of farmed land is irrigated and drought can throw the whole country into crisis and food shortage.

According to Abebe Tadege, head of research at the national meteorological office in Addis Ababa: “There have been signs of climate change in Ethiopia since 2000, and even before. Tropical Africa is a hot spot for precipitation changes. I am very worried. What is the impact on crops, on tef [the traditional staple], tea, coffee, livestock?"

With five major droughts in two decades, many families have not had time to recover and hundreds of thousands of people live on the brink of survival every year. In 2000–3, 46% of the population were malnourished, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization.

Meanwhile 2006 saw some of the worst floods in Ethiopia’s history, displacing people all over the country. Flash floods in Dire Dawa, the second largest city after Addis Ababa, killed nearly 250 people and displaced thousands.

More than 400 people died during outbreaks of acute watery diarrhoea in 2006. Fadis, in the east, has been badly hit by drought. Many farmers have suffered from poor harvests year after year due to erratic rainfall. In recent years the rains have failed completely.

Yusuf Idris, a village elder, has lived in the area for 40 years and his family and community are regularly dependent on relief food. The rains have failed consistently for the last few years and he cannot plant his crops. “When there is a little rain, we can plant sorghum and maize but we don’t produce much," he says.

The nearby River Boco, which used to be one of the main sources for irrigation in the area dried up several years ago, partly because of the lack of rainfall. Yusuf remembers orange and lemon groves beside the river. He reports that many people in his community migrate every year because of drought, and scarcity of food and water.

Malaria A few kilometres away near the town of Harar, Lake Halamaya also dried up several years ago, partly because of the scarcity of rainfall in the region. Lake Halamaya, about five kilometres long, was the main source of water for Harar and the surrounding communities and provided income for fishermen.

Fatiya Abatish Jacob is a local trader who lived near the lake for 14 years: “I used to get my drinking water from the lake, now I have to walk eight kilometres to get it. Also there were many vegetables farmers round here using the water for irrigation and we used to get fish. Now there are no fish around here and vegetables are more expensive."

And while there was drought in Harar area to the south there were bad floods in 2006 in west Shoa, where 3,000 people were displaced. “Such heavy flooding hasn’t happened for 40 years," says Tiringo Engdawork, Ethiopian Red Cross Society (ERCS) branch secretary. “It destroyed houses, crops and cattle." Local malaria rates have shot up.

ERCS disaster preparedness emphasizes clean water and tree planting for wood, fruit and terracing. Gabriel Aebachew, head of organizational development, believes that they have to now “create awareness of climate change, collect data and train volunteers" at branch level.

According to relief officer Geude Beyenne: “We have volunteers trained in disaster preparedness activities in every part of Ethiopia. We started two years ago because we realise we are affected by natural calamities more frequently. We are trying to prepare relief materials such as blankets and jerrycans and store them in various regions. The policy now is that 10% of branch income will go to supplies for preparedness activities."

The ERCS has also placed considerable importance on the need to conserve water. Rain “harvesting" is an efficient way of collecting clean water during the rainy period and it can last several weeks or months. “In Moyale, for example, in the south, there is no river and so rainwater harvesting is important," Geude Beyenne explains. “Water is key, especially in disaster preparedness. Some people in the south might only use a litre a week." More than 50 rainwater harvesting tanks, on roofs and underground, have been built in the last two or three years.

The ERCS also has a programme of community based health care for awareness-raising and education, but this will have to be scaled up in the light of climate change. Malaria, typhoid, cholera and diarrhoea are all diseases that spread more rapidly during times of hardship.

Diseases that were considered to have been eradicated are also making reappearance. In 2006 Acute Watery Diarrhoea cases were recorded for the first time in ten years. And there is clearly interaction between malnutrition, malaria and HIV/AIDS.

Further information and updates on Red Cross programs can be obtained by visiting the Climate Centre website.

Material for this page was extracted from: Red Cross/Red Crescent Climate Guide, November 2007.

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