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Timely insurance against famine

Drought in Burkina Faso (© FAO/F. Botts)
Drought in Burkina Faso
© FAO/F. Botts

One prediction that seemingly all global warming scenarios share is that Africa will bear the brunt. Pastoralists and farmers of rainfed land are especially at risk because they are weather dependent and short on options for adapting. Dr James Verdin of the US Geological Survey believes that climate change is already hurting them. While acknowledging the bad decisions and worse luck that have fuelled Ethiopia's ongoing food-security crisis, Verdin argues that a persistent climate trend is changing rainfall patterns in Ethiopia and so extending the emergency.

"The world price for coffee began to decline in 1997, coinciding with floods and crop losses caused by the 1997-98 El Niño," he said. "An outbreak of Rift Valley fever caused livestock losses and led to an export ban. The 1998-2000 war with Eritrea combined with drought to leave pastoral areas especially hard hit. A bumper crop in 2000 led to a market crash in 2001 due to poor market integration. Farmers responded by reducing planted area in 2002, only to be struck by the worst drought in 40 years. An unprecedented food-security crisis ensued in 2002-03, with 13.2 million people, or 22 per cent of the population, receiving food aid. Recovery has been slow. Ethiopia now has 5.1 million chronically food insecure, another 3.7 million needing emergency assistance this year, and about 1 million potentially food insecure."

Less rain

The slow recovery is partly due to a pattern of high sea-surface temperatures in the Indian Ocean that emerged in the 1980s. These have driven changes in air circulation that have reduced rainfall in Ethiopia, especially since 1996. Since then, and possibly from earlier, a close correlation has existed between average rainfall deficits and the number of people requiring food aid.

"Rains come in March-September, with a pause at the end of May or beginning of June," Verdin explained. "The belg rains come in March-May, the kiremt in June-September." Although the short-cycle crops grown in the belg season account for only 5-10 per cent of national production, long-cycle crops that grow through both seasons, mostly maize and sorghum, account for half. "The belg is a critical stage when rainfall deficits can hurt the yields of crops harvested in September," he added. "These reduced belg rains appear to be part of a larger set of climate changes in the Indian Ocean basin."

Predicting food shortage

Rainfall in April-May explains half of the variance of the water requirement satisfaction index, the measure of how harvests are likely to be constrained by water scarcity. This is a key indicator used by the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET), an information system funded by USAID, which monitors rainfall, vegetation, crops, market prices and other factors to produce its weekly Africa Weather Hazards Assessment.

"FEWS NET seeks answers to key questions," Verdin said. "Which population groups are facing food insecurity and for how long? And what are the best ways to mitigate adverse trends or shocks to livelihood systems?"

However, the system has important limitations. According to Dr Menghestab Haile of the UN's World Food Programme (WFP) "The present system saves lives but not livelihoods." The problem is that food needs are not assessed until the harvest. When there is a shortfall, appeals for aid go out, funding is secured, and aid finally begins to flow at about the beginning of the next growing season. By then many desperate families, not knowing if aid will come at all, have left their barren farms in search of food.

Insuring against hunger

To enable timely distribution of food aid, WFP proposes institutionalising the aid process with "acute hunger insurance" indexed to the weather. Working with the World Bank, the Programme has set about instituting a pilot hunger-insurance project in Ethiopia and is preparing for talks with reinsurance companies on insuring Ethiopia's 2006 harvest. Specified variations in the rainfall index will trigger payouts. As the most destructive variance typically occurs early in the growing season, assessment can take place well before the harvest. Payouts will fund emergency operations, with food aid arriving soon after the harvest. The certainty of a payout and its timely arrival will encourage farm families to stay put. This will place them in a better position to resume their livelihoods in the following season. Haile points out that the pilot system still leaves unprotected many of Ethiopia's most vulnerable poor. "Insurance companies won't insure pastoral areas with policies based on rainfall," he said. "I hope in the future to have policies based on remote sensing of vegetation to include pastoral areas."

Date published: July 2005


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