UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA - AFRICAN STUDIES CENTER
By Dechassa Lemessa, UN-EUE Senior Field Assistant Synopsis
The purpose of the visit, carried out from 29 to 31 August, 1999, was to conduct a quick assessment of the food security situation and follow up on the status of relief operations (by Government, NGOs and Churches) in Konso Special Wereda, Southern Nations, Nationalities and Peoples Region (SNNPR).
Since 1997, the people of Konso Special Wereda have faced severe food insecurity. Unfavorable climatic conditions have undermined the capacity of the farming community to feed itself. Erratic rain, crop pests (Armyworms and migratory birds), human and animal diseases are the major contributing factors to the current crisis in the wereda.
This year, Konso is facing a severe shortage of food due, predominantly, to the total failure of the belg rains and, hence, failure of belg harvest. To date, 107,722 people (58% of the total population) have been identified by the wereda authorities as requiring immediate relief assistance. The scale of malnutrition, at least in those communities that are accessible, is considerable and an indication of the seriousness of the situation. Relief food assistance provided so far is not sufficient to meet the needs and unless urgent action is taken, stress migration and increased levels of malnutrition, morbidity and mortality, especially with regard to children and the elderly is likely to be observed.
A range of rapid rural assessment techniques were used to gather information in the field. Farm and household visits, direct observations, transect walks, and semi-structured interviews with farmers, Development Agents and officials were used in addition to various written sources.
Konso Special Wereda is situated about 600 kilometers south of Addis Ababa. The total population of the wereda is estimated to be 186,000 residing in 31 kebeles (neighborhoods) with a total area of 1,800 km2. The arable land holding size/household is estimated to be less than one hectare.
Konso is known for its industrious people who are skilled in carving sculptures out of wood. The people are also held in high regard for their traditional natural resources conservation practices and rural road construction works in very rugged and difficult terrain. Furthermore, Konso people are known for their prudence in saving surplus food stocks for bad times.
In altitude, Konso ranges from 500 to 2,500 masl. The landscape in the wereda is characterised by its network of intersecting valleys. The valley bottoms are relatively rich in alluvial soils supporting a range of different crops and vegetation. Konso is classified as being in a semi-arid ecological zone with erratic rainfall and poor soil fertility despite the traditional soil and water conservation measures practiced by the people. The average annual rainfall of the area amounts to 570mm. The climate is known for its long dry spells punctuated by unreliable and poor quality rains. 57% of the annual rainfall of Konso is concentrated in three months (March, April and May) and 62% of this is received in April.
There are two cropping seasons in Konso: belg (February-May) and meher (Hagaya) the former one accounting for 65-75% of the annual crop production. Belg crops include maize, sorghum, teff, haricot bean, barley and wheat. In Konso, sorghum is harvested twice: the main harvest comes from the belg production while a secondary, meher harvest in October/November is obtained from the practice of ratooning (allowing new growth from the rootstock left in the ground).
Konso farmers are renowned for their practice of intricate, diverse and intensive inter-cropping and relay cropping techniques. Due to the severe shortage of land, agricultural practices like fallowing and crop rotation are unthinkable in Konso. More than 60% of the farmers cultivate their land continuously; the result being a steady decline in soil fertility. Low agricultural productivity is a reality faced by the majority of farmers, which in turn has contributed to low capital accumulation and increasing rural impoverishment.
Konso is an areas that has suffered repeated episodes of drought and famine. Since the 1950s, drought induced famines have hit Konso and the immediate area almost once every ten years. In more recent years, the frequency and intensity of such occurrences appear to have increased markedly. Konso was devastated by the droughts in 1973/74 and 1983/84.
Konso has been hit by three consecutive years of crop failure due mainly to poor rains. In 1997, the belg rains began late and ended early, resulting in the failure of the belg crop in the lowlands. The situation was made worse when the sorghum crop was damaged by an infestation of migratory Quelea birds (Quelea quelea). In 1998, untimely rains destroyed hillside terraces and river bank farms leading to widespread crop losses. Although some food aid was provided in both these years, the people of Konso mainly fell back on their own limited resources and traditional methods of coping. Inevitably, after two poor years by the beginning of 1999 the people of Konso were already in a very vulnerable position.
This year, due to the total failure of belg rains (February-May) no production is expected. Field crops withered at flowering stage and instead have been used as livestock feed - a practice which has kept the animals in exceptionally good condition despite the prevailing drought. Nevertheless, supplies of fodder are now exhausted. An outbreak of Armyworm (Spodoptera exempta) in April/May also inflicted limited damage on forage and cereal crops.
As a result of these factors, Konso wereda administrators consider 107,722 people from 29 Peasants Associations as requiring urgent relief assistance, a figure nearly twice the number currently receiving food assistance.
Meher season prospects
Having faced a consecutive series of poor harvests, farmers in Konso now have to wait until June 2000 when the next belg harvest might offer some relief. However, having exhausted their resources in coping with the current crisis, there is doubt that farmers will have the capacity to prepare themselves for the next belg planting season. This raises the importance of some form of agricultural recovery/rehabilitation programme to compliment the current relief response.
1. Malnutrition: Cases of Kwashiorkor and marasmus seen among young children. Many elderly are severely emaciated. Though figures are not yet released, an NGO working in the area has undertaken a nutrition survey in August indicating that levels of malnutrition are worsening.
2. Stress Migration: People are moving to neighbouring areas (Moyale, Arba Minch, etc.) seeking opportunities for casual employment. The main town of Konso, Karate, is flooded with young people looking for work.
3. Market prices: Maize and sorghum, the main food crops in Konso, have increased from Birr 70 & 75 in normal years to Birr 170 & 185 per 100 kgs respectively in March, 1999. Meanwhile, the terms of trade has deteriorated. Fuelwood per bundle which was Birr 10-7 in normal years has dropped to Birr 3-4. By the same token, a bundle of grass which would be valued at Birr 6-7 in normal seasons has fallen to Birr 3-3.50.
4. Changes in consumption: A range of traditional famine foods: wild fruits, roots and herbs are being widely consumed by people in order to survive.
5. Water shortages: Perennial rivers, Segene River, for instance, have dried out for the first time in living memory. The discharge of wells and springs has reduced sharply.
6. Depleted household food stocks.
7. Falling school attendance: The enrollment of students declined by 30% in two schools from January to March.
To date, three rounds of food distribution have taken place from supplies delivered by the government authorities and NGOs and churches working in Konso. Nevertheless, the relief assistance provided is not considered sufficient to meet the scale of the problem.
Initially, the number of people considered drought-affected and requiring immediate relief aid was estimated by the authorities to be 57,320 for which 1,743 MT of grain had been distributed as of mid-August. Of this, DPPC provided 712 MT of cereals (February-April) to 57,320 beneficiaries. Meanwhile, FARM Africa and the Konso Development Association (KDA) have together pledged 3,700 MT of grain for Employment Generation/Food-for-Work schemes, envisaged to cover the period from September to November, and Norwegian Church Aid has given 716 MT of grain for free food distribution to 57,320 beneficiaries. At the same time, Mekane Yesus Church/Lutheran World Federation has also carried out various conservation works through FFW for which of 315 MT of wheat has been distributed to 2 PAs in April 1999. Furthermore, with the aim of reducing destitution and external migration LWF has prepared a proposal which could secure 900 MT of food and provide hand tools to support FFW (conservation and water development works) employing up to 30,000 people.
At the time of the mission, there was no relief food stocks available at the wereda warehouses for immediate distribution. Stocks of supplementary foods for children under five, pregnant and lactating mothers were nil.
The crisis in Konso is a result of three consecutive rain failures which have combined to undermine food security, increase levels of poverty and greatly reduce the capacity of people to cope with the present situation without external assistance. Following a failure of the belg crop, there is very little prospect for significant meher production. As malnutrition increases, outbreaks of preventable diseases among both the human and livestock population is likely to increase. As there is a serious shortage of medical and veterinary drugs in the area such outbreaks could be very serious. In general, lives and livelihoods are at risk and unless additional assistance is made available on an urgent basis, further migration and an increase in mortality are likely.
Additional food assistance as well as supplementary foods (for children under five, lactating and pregnant mothers), drugs and clothing are urgently needed. In planning assistance, the number of needy beneficiaries should be increased as proposed by the wereda and not the figure of 57,320 currently used and which is no longer a realistic reflection of the scale of needs. Food assistance should extend up to June 2000 when the next belg harvest takes place. The situation should continue to be monitored closely. Meanwhile, with the schools now re-opening, additional assistance for students should be considered (school feeding, for example).
1. Initiating a recovery/rehabilitation programme for the farming community so as to restore their capacity to be productive must be a high priority. This could be in the form of provision of agricultural inputs such as seeds and planting materials for the next planting season (belg) as well as tools and specialist advice.
2. Study the botanical, agronomic and nutritional content and quality of the wild plants consumed by the people as means of survival during hungry times.
3. Identify the scope for further projects incorporating Employment Generation and/or Food-for-Work activities to help people find employment and rebuild their asset base.
14 September 1999
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