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Africa | Forcible displacement from natural disasters



Ethiopia is experiencing its worst drought in 40 years brought about by La Niña, causing a heightened periodic heating of the Eastern Tropical Pacific, resulting in below-normal rainfall. The United Nations Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) stated that between June and December of 2022, the Southeast part of Ethiopia, including Oromia, and the Southern Nations, Nationalities, and People's Region, experienced one of the worst droughts recorded in the Horn of Africa, impacting 12 million people.

According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), as of January 2023, drought rather than internal violence has been replaced as the primary cause of displacement for 781,344 internally displaced persons (IDPs). Drought-affected regions comprise up to three-quarters of the total land area of Ethiopia and Somalia, severely impacting the Oromia and Afar regions. As a result, 1.8 million people are displaced in drought-affected regions, which constitute around one-out-of-five displaced persons in Ethiopia.  The drought has led to devastating effects on food security across the country. It is estimated that 20 million people are food insecure across Ethiopia. Approximately 3.5 million livestock have died, further displacing and damaging livelihoods as about three-quarters of the country’s labour force and 40% of GDP rely on agriculture.

Current Figures

Government Response

Despite the country's state of emergency being formally lifted at the end of February 2022 following the conflict in Tigray, much of the government response remains plagued by civil unrest, continued climate shock, and a failing economy that hinders the ability to respond. Officially, the government contends that the impacts of the drought are under control and the government is “responding appropriately”. According to Debela Itana, Director of Logistics for Response and Rehabilitation at the regional commission in charge of the humanitarian response (Oromia Busa Gonofa), it is estimated that the number of people in need of assistance in the Borona zone had increased by more than 500,000 in six months due to drought and food shortages. Since February 2023, the federal and regional governments have been providing more than 10,000 quintals of food to help those facing malnourishment. According to Itana, aid for the 867,140 people in need of assistance “will be provided continuously for the next 6 months.”

In 2017, the government of Ethiopia allocated around $735 million to the 2016 - 2017 drought response, but in recent years has taken a less active engagement due to the war in the north, which has devastated the Ethiopian economy. Despite the impact of the war on the economy, many still criticise the government's response as inadequate and reckless in its ability to sufficiently aid those in need. One such critic is President Mustafa Omer, who governs the Somali Regional State within Ethiopia. Omer, and other leaders, labelled the government response as “gross negligence and dismissal of the reality on the ground by the administration”. Such internal political rupture reflects the broader complexity of political instability between regions and the wider country. This poses the potential danger of drawing attention away from the drought and festering further internal conflict and violence.

Relief Efforts

Attempts to supply Ethiopia with relief aid have been disrupted by internal conflict and pressing international concerns, such as the Ukraine war and impacts of Covid-19. Funding remains and will continue to be a severe issue. The country primarily relies on a single donor, the US, who has provided over 77% of the Ethiopia Humanitarian Response Plan funding. Past the mid-year point of 2023, 76% of the $4 billion needed for the response plan remains unfunded. In total, it is expected that over $316 billion is required to finance Ethiopia’s adaptation and mitigation goals to reach its required climate sustainable standards set by 2030. Despite this, only around $63.2 billion is expected to be provided domestically whilst international donors will supply the rest. “Limited financing, low technical capacity, and poor technologies restrain the operationalization of climate and green growth strategies.”

On 8 June 2023, USAID announced that it is halting food aid to the country after discovering a “widespread and coordinated campaign” to divert aid from vulnerable populations. The US and Ethiopian governments are investigating the situation. A spokesperson for USAID stated that the halt would be temporary, adding, “Our intention is to immediately resume food assistance once we are confident in the integrity of delivery systems to get assistance to its intended recipients.” In the fiscal year of 2022, USAID distributed $1.5 billion to the country, most of it in food aid. Such disruptions heavily burden the Ethiopian government to supply this aid by other means.

In 2022, the UK government announced that additional aid will be supplied regarding food and fiscal support. It is estimated that 600,000 people in Ethiopia will benefit from these food supplies, with the UK contributing an estimated £16.6 million. This is in addition to a £11.6 million contribution to the Productive Safety Network Programme (PSNP), which will help around 250,000 people living in extreme poverty with aid for food and livelihood.

According to IOM, IDP living conditions continue to be unsafe and inadequate. In a report dated June 27, 2023, IOM stated, “in 62.16% of villages, the majority of returning IDPs had not received any Non-Food Item (NFI) upon return, showing a poor situation both in the sites of displacement and villages of return.” About 65.09% of IDP households do not have shelter that protects them from weather, and nearly half do not have access to emergency shelter kits.

Political Risks

Forcible climate displacement has exacerbated regional political tensions. In both Tigray and Amhara, the UN has found that the significant influx of newly displaced persons has worsened existing tensions between Amharas and Tigrayans who previously lived in the same areas. Spurred on by drastic shifts in government land policies and change to regional borders in the 1990s following decentralisation, ethnicity and governance have renegotiated the foundations of identity, statehood, and centre peripheral relations that have increased the unpredictability and vulnerability to violence and climate threats.

Ethiopia has been the epicentre of violent ruptures in Tigray and has been the host of refugees from neighbouring countries. The country currently has 4.2 million IDPs and an estimated 1.5 million IDP returnees, fostered through an ongoing conflict in northern Ethiopia and other local conflicts.

The signing of a comprehensive peace agreement in November 2022 has brought a glimmer of hope for ensuring political stability when humanitarian assistance is in dire need for such conditions. However, climate threats posed by ongoing drought and unpredictable climate conditions for the foreseeable seasons will likely heighten violence and increase the number of IDPs.

Regional violence and exploitation are becoming increasingly prolific as they are linked to drier conditions and damaging climate impacts. A study on the linkages between rainfall anomalies and communal conflict found that dry conditions are associated with increased armed activity and violence between pastoralists and livelihood groups, especially when rain is absent during Kiremt (the rainy season in Ethiopia).

Introducing formalised property rights across pastoral land has contributed to exclusion in areas governed by traditional understandings of communal natural resources and has exacerbated pastoralists' vulnerability to climate change. Granting foreign investment has resulted in state mediated commercialisation of Ethiopia’s agriculture and has driven a ‘land grab’ process, leading to further displacement. Such conditions exacerbate the fragile position of peasants and pastoralists who remain under threat from climate change that fosters unsettling political conditions for the state through fragile economic hardships and an increase in IDPs.

It has been reported that the social and economic hardship faced by those in drought-affected areas has impacted children and caregivers particularly severely. Instances of labour, street begging, early marriage, and increased school dropout patterns have been recorded in drought-affected areas. An estimated 80% of the people displaced by climate change are girls and women. Women have the highest risk of sexual and criminal exploitation, which has increased significantly. According to WaterAid, the gender role assigned to women for being responsible for fetching water at increasingly long distances “increases the risk of sexual abuse and girls missing out on education.”

Expected Trends

According to the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS Net), food insecurity is expected to peak through September of this year. “Needs are not only at historically high levels for the second consecutive year, but the depth of food consumption gaps range from large-to-extreme in northern and south/southeastern Ethiopia.” While there has been some cessation in hostilities and drought in certain areas, the “erosion of livelihoods” during these events has created a struggle to recover income and food.

The areas with the highest concern and expected deteriorating conditions include Borena, Liban, Afder, Dawa, and other parts of Korae and Shabelle zones where hunger levels are at ‘critical’ and ‘extremely critical’ levels.  It is expected that recovery will only be achieved over a long period of favourable climate seasons in the future. The restart in the assistance in large-scale food aid is critical for rebuilding livelihoods across affected regions.

In areas that have received rain after five consecutive seasons of drought, flash floods have impacted 900,000 across the Horn of Africa. The lack of aid has contributed to an outbreak in cholera, dengue, malaria, and measles, which will likely continue to spread across regions for those living in poor and unsanitary conditions. Below-average rainfalls and flash floods are expected to continue throughout the country during a pause in international aid, creating an even more desperate situation for IDPs. Worsening climate conditions, along with ethnic tensions that lead to conflicts, will create further strain on a country that cannot assist those in need, and thus further displacement and deaths.

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