Resilience to climate shocks in Ethiopia—What does it take?

August 2, 2019

UNDP Administrator Achim Steiner visiting Somali region in Ethiopia as part of a joint mission with OCHA to assess impact of droughts and highlight Ethiopia’s efforts to strengthen its national systems and the relevance of the UN’s new approach to crises and long term development interventions or ‘New Way of Working’ (NWOW).

By Turhan Saleh (UNDP Ethiopia Resident Representative) and Claudia Ringler (Environment Production and Technology Division Deputy Director, IFPRI )

Extreme weather events and other climate change-linked disasters have devastated communities globally: be it cyclones along the coast of Southern Africa, flooding in parts of Canada, drought-induced wildfires in California, or the recent ENSO (El Niño-Southern Oscillation)-induced drought in Eastern and Southern Africa that affected 60 million people. These powerful events trigger humanitarian disasters and wreak economic havoc. They also raise an important question: How can we increase resilience to climate-induced shocks - particularly in poorer countries that are most vulnerable?

Our new research, Building Resilience to Climate Shocks in Ethiopia, takes a deep dive into this question with a focus on the 2015/16 ENSO event that led to erratic rains, causing crop failure, loss of assets, spikes in food insecurity and acute undernutrition. While ENSO is a recurring climate pattern involving changes in the temperature of waters in the central and eastern tropical Pacific Ocean, the 2015/16 event was particularly strong. As a consequence of the prolonged drought, an additional 10 million Ethiopians required emergency food aid or other assistance on top of the 8 million already participating in Ethiopia’s social protection program, the Productive Safety Net Programme (PSNP).

Building Resilience

Our findings indicate that resilience measures that protect agriculture and the people most vulnerable to weather shocks can substantially reduce the negative impact of climate shocks—and drought in particular.

But, designing resilience measures require better data and research. When we re-analysed the 2015/16 ENSO event, we found that crop yield losses were concentrated in several sub-regions: the greatest impacts occurred in the lowlands where cereal production dropped by nearly 10% and livestock herd size shrank by 23%. Even though at the national level the impact was relatively small on crop and livelihood production, it lowered the national gross domestic product (GDP) by 1.6% (or USD 438 million in 2010/11 prices). Agricultural GDP, however, fell by much more—3.6%—and GDP in the drought-prone lowlands fell dramatically, by 11.1%.  A full-blown crisis could be prevented because of the existing Ethiopian government and development partner-supported programs in the country. Public safety net and agricultural support programs, such as Productive Safety Net Programme, the Programme of Adaptation to Climate Change, the Agricultural Growth Programme and various irrigation investments supported resilience to climate shocks.  In the country’s pastoralist areas, measures such as fodder cultivation and banks, improvement of livestock markets, water resources management, and savings and credit institutions were the bulwark of climate resilience. Targeting of these programs can be further improved, especially in the drought-prone lowland areas, where livestock recovery takes longer and better access to services such as education, healthcare, credit, energy, and infrastructure are urgently needed.

To reduce adverse yield impacts under both El Niño and La Niña climate shocks, Ethiopia must continue on its path to agricultural intensification, which has clearly already paid off.  Annual cereal production grew to 7.4% of the last decade, up from 3.9% during 1996-2006. To consolidate these gains in production a combination of measures such as increased application of nitrogen fertilizer, integrated soil fertility management, and irrigation will be particularly effective. Apart from on-farm interventions, we explored if programs such as food import subsidies, grain distribution, and social transfers have the potential to further eliminate adverse impacts of ENSO type event--either individually or collectively. We found that food import subsidies reduce consumption losses, and grain distribution and cash transfers reduce losses for poorer households. If implemented, collectively, these three programs could largely eliminate welfare losses of poorer households, but none are effective in reducing GDP losses.

Is it possible for Ethiopia (or any country) to become fully independent of emergency support, such as food aid or other assistance, during extreme climate events? Well, we think this is unlikely. But targeted programs strengthening agricultural and economic growth can substantially lessen adverse impacts, by smoothing out major disruptions to consumption and reducing the number of people needing support during crises.

Improved data collection; developing monitoring tools and indicators for resilience; and reinforcing coordination of resilience programming can build resilience. Strengthening the rural enabling environment by improving microfinance institutions, input and output markets, and associated rural infrastructure; continued investment in agriculture research and development focused on addressing climate shocks; and supporting the creation of livelihood options outside agriculture may also help to mitigate adverse impacts of climate-related disasters.

Ultimately, any long-term solution to building resilience requires a flourishing agricultural sector achieving substantially higher productivity using climate-resilient, sustainable practices, developing better economic linkages and supporting increased household incomes in rural areas.

(Download study)