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Aligned climate drivers and potential impacts on food security in Ethiopia in 2024

This brief explores the climatic and food security outcomes of positive and negative El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO) and Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD) phase alignment in different rainfall zones in Ethiopia, since 2000.
Farmers sowing wheat in Ethiopia. Credit: Gerardo Mejía/International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre

Introduction

This brief explores the climatic and food security outcomes of positive and negative El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO) and Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD) phase alignment in different rainfall zones in Ethiopia, since 2000.

Since 2000, there have been two positive (El Niño and positive IOD) and two negative (La Niña and negative IOD) phase alignments. The positive alignments occurred in 2002–2003 and 2015–2016, while the negative alignments occurred in 2010–2011 and 2020–2022. Each of the four alignments resulted in poor or failed rains in one or more of Ethiopia’s main seasonal rainfall zones and the emergence of drought conditions.

Primary and secondary food security assessments and humanitarian food assistance records confirm that each alignment and the associated drought conditions resulted in a spike in the number of people requiring humanitarian assistance compared to previous years, when ENSO and IOD phases were not aligned. The brief seeks to alert the authorities in Ethiopia and its development partners that the current alignment could result in a significant spike in the number of people in need of humanitarian assistance in 2024.

This weADAPT article is an abridged version of the original text, which can be downloaded from the right-hand column or below on mobile devices. Please access the original text for more detail, research purposes, full references, or to quote text.

Background

An estimated 90% of Ethiopia’s smallholder farmers and pastoralists are dependent on seasonal rains for their food production and associated food security. Normal seasonal rainfall therefore helps ensure household food security, whereas delayed-onset, erratic, and/or poor rains expose households to heightened food insecurity. Poorer rural households are especially vulnerable to significant seasonal rainfall anomalies.

Ethiopia’s rainfall zones are complex and include a mix of mono- and bi-modal systems.

Ethiopia’s rainfall zones

Ethiopia’s seasonal rainfall systems are the result of a complex range of factors including the migration of the Intertropical Convergence Zone, Ethiopia’s mountainous terrain, energy and moisture cells over the Indian Ocean, and the Madden– Julian oscillation. Large-scale seasonal rainfall anomalies around the world are, however, driven by the alignment of ENSO and IOD climate drivers. Both ENSO and IOD are single climatic phenomena, but each exhibits neutral, positive and negative phases as measured by shifts in sea surface temperature at different locations or indices in the eastern Pacific Ocean and across the Indian Ocean.

Methodology

Standard participatory rural appraisal techniques were used following the ENSO and IOD alignments of 2016 and 2023 to assess the impact on agricultural sector production, while the impacts of the ENSO and IOD alignments in 2002 and 2010 were explored using secondary data sources.

Key findings

  • Smallholder farmers and pastoralists in Ethiopia depend on seasonal rains. A range of factors drive variable rainfall and localised drought that can affect local seasonal food production and household food security.
  • El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO) and Indian Ocean Dipole (IOD) climate drivers can result in significant seasonal rainfall anomalies around the world. In Ethiopia, these anomalies are most pronounced when negative and positive ENSO and IOD phases align. Since 2000, this occurred in 2002–2003, 2010–2011, 2015–2016 and 2020–2022.
  • These alignments resulted in poor and failed rains in one or more of Ethiopia’s rainfall zones, poor crop and livestock production, reduced household food security, and greatly increased numbers of people needing humanitarian assistance.
  • ENSO and IOD alignments impact poorer households particularly, and it can take years for affected households to build back their livelihood assets.
  • Most recently, the autumn 2023 El Niño and positive IOD phase alignment resulted in abnormally heavy rains, and the worst flooding in 40 years, in Ethiopia’s southern pastoral areas (and neighbouring countries). This alignment is forecast to continue into 2024.
  • If this El Niño and positive IOD alignment continues, further heavy rain can be expected in Ethiopia’s southern pastoral areas, and severe drought in the central and northern highlands.
Number of people requiring humanitarian assistance, 2000–2023

Policy recommendations

Already facing millions of people in need of humanitarian assistance as a result of multiple conflicts, drought and floods, Ethiopia can ill-afford a further spike in numbers. Given the strong association between such spikes and previous ENSO and IOD alignments, this Policy Brief recommends that the Ethiopia Disaster Risk Management Commission (EDRMC) establishes a specialist ENSO–IOD facility. Supported by its international partners, this facility can plan for the impact of a drought in 2024 in the central and northern highlands and estimate and resource the additional amount of humanitarian assistance required.

Suggested citation

Cullis, A., Bogale, S. 2024. Aligned climate drivers and potential impacts on food security in Ethiopia in 2024. SPARC Policy Brief.

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