Ecological and political factors are stacking the deck against the population in Ethiopia amidst severe drought

On 19 April, the World Food Program announced that the number of people pushed to hunger by the severe drought in the Horn of Africa could rise from the current 14 million to 20 million by the end of the year. This is the latest in a long list of warnings from various international organisations that have been drawing attention to the agropastoral and food crises caused by this drought  since 2020. But contrary to the 2016-2017 drought in the Horn, sufficient measures have not been put in place upstream, organisations warn. Although the whole region faces alarming consequences, with for example half a million already starving people in Kenya, Ethiopia is currently the most affected country with more than 7 million people already affected by famine. This is due to various climatic, but also political circumstances.

Meteorological reasons for the crisis

The current drought in the Horn of Africa is predominantly caused by climate change and the prolonged lack of rain linked to the weather phenomenon called La Niña, one of the three different patterns of El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO), a complex periodic variation in winds and sea temperatures in the Pacific. It is the cause of multiple weather disasters across the world. This phenomenon is cyclical and predictable to some extent, and on 29 October 2020, the World Meteorological Organization had already announced that La Niña would reduce the rains in the Horn of Africa for the following years. Nevertheless, last February the WMO predicted “a strong rainy season” in the Horn of Africa, specifying however that the centre and the north-east of Ethiopia will receive less rain than the rest of the region, before revising its estimates later in the year and announcing record drought. According to Voice of America, the current extended drought is the worst one since 1981.

Other reasons

The lack of rain in itself is not the only problem, and several local aggravating factors are at play. The first is soil degradation, which is a direct consequence of modern agriculture. Ethiopia has one of the fastest rates of soil degradation, according to assistant-professor of environmental science at Bahir Dar University Temesgen Gashaw, especially in the Highlands. Effective measures only started to be taken by the government in the 1980s, after almost 50% of the highland area was declared significantly eroded. The measures have only been able to partially curb the erosion, and the authorities have yet to put in place best practices in terms of integrated land management, as shown by recent studies.

The Ukrainian crisis has also led to a worsening of the situation for farmers in Ethiopia. According to data from the Fertilizer Institute, Russia is the world largest fertiliser exporter, and the ongoing crisis in Eastern Europe is pressurising the Ethiopian market, where the fertiliser prices are already two to three times higher than on the world markets, according to scholars.

The aftermath of the previous drought also caused by ENSO in 2016-2017, which had already weakened farmers, also plays a role. The Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO) announced in August 2017 that “[l]ivelihood recovery will remain slow for El Niño-affected farmers, especially those in areas where harvests were below average.” Locust invasions in the Horn between 2019 and 2021 also contributed to weakening farmers, according to FAO.

Political responses

In August 2021, The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) completed an anticipatory action plan for Ethiopia in order to get ahead of drought, like in 2016-2017. However, according to several sources, the preventive and palliative measures are encountering funding shortages, as international donors and the federal government focus their resources on the 17-month war with Tigray. On 13 April, a European Commission spokesperson also explained to Devex that international collaborations in Ethiopia were made more complicated due to the current political situation. According to several sources, the arrival of humanitarian aid in the Tigray region in the north of the country, already afflicted by the ongoing civil conflict, is still very complicated, and active work on the drought issues in this region is still impossible.

For its part the Ethiopian state, already facing a galloping inflation, is trying to take measures to promote imports of basic products in the country and to limit the effects of the drought in the Somali region. On 9 April, the Ethiopian Ministry of Finance simplified the process for essential foodstuffs imports, and on 25 April, The Ministry of Irrigation and Lowlands announced that it will allocates 338 million ETB (around 7 million Euros) to fight the drought in the Somali region, one of the most affected by the drought.


Ethiopians adopt different responses to the economic and food crisis. Some, like the farmers in the region of East Gojjam, decided to fill a complaint against the local authorities in order to obtain more supplies. Others are trying to get out of the country, like the numerous people wanting to volunteer to help the Russian army in Ukraine in exchange of money and the promise to find a job in Russia once the Ukrainian war is over. However, most of the population is in need of help, like Mohamed Farah, a farmer in the Somali region of Ethiopia interviewed by the New York Post who is keeping his last sheep alive with the hay of his roof.The most vulnerable people are still the many displaced families across East Africa. According to Clementine Nkweta-Salami, UNHCR’s Regional Bureau Director for the East, Horn of Africa and the Great Lakes: “Refugees and internally displaced people are at the centre of the food ration cuts, compounding a desperate situation for millions of people uprooted from their homes and often relying on aid to survive,”. The number of displaced people grows each day and the food assistance is not keeping up. On 13 April, the UNHCR stated that “over 70 percent of refugees in need of assistance do not receive a full ration due to funding shortfalls”. The drought also affects the rates of gender-based violence and death during childbirth, since people are leaving their home in search of food and taking desperate measures to survive, warns UNHCR.