Disaster foretold

The world’s biggest climatic weather phenomenon is easier to predict than many calamities. But it shows the importance of preparing for other disasters, too
Nov 7th 2015 | NORTH WOLLO | From the print edition : The Economist

JUMPING a fence of prickly pears, Gumat Hussain, a local chief in the driest district of North Wollo, Ethiopia’s most drought-prone province, walks gloomily through his sorghum. “The crops have not produced grain. They are useless even for the animals,” he sighs. El Niño, the world’s largest climatic weather phenomenon, is keeping the rains away across swathes of Africa this year. Ethiopian officials say that the harvest is failing as completely as in a series of droughts that together killed more than 1m of the country’s people between 1965 and 1985, and made Ethiopia a byword for hopeless famine.

More than 8m Ethiopians are now going hungry. But a decade-old food-security programme is keeping the poorest from starvation—and showing how preparation for extreme weather events can mitigate the worst effects. In Africa’s largest social-protection scheme, 6m Ethiopians spend five days each month for the lean half of the year on public works such as digging water-holes for animals and building terraces for crops. In return they get 13kg of cereal and 4kg of pulses a month, or the cash equivalent. Another million who are unable to work get the handout, too.

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