Belg rains are late: North Central Ethiopia once again faces difficult year - Title

Belg Rains are Late: North Central Ethiopia once again Faces Difficult Year

By Walter Eggenberger and Dechassa Lemessa, UN-EUE Field Officers

Belg rains arrive late:

The northern highlands once again face a difficult year

(Report of a Field Mission to Welo, 14-24 March 2000)


In early March reports started to circulate regarding a deteriorating situation in the northern central highlands of Ethiopia (Wag Hamra, North Welo, South Welo, Oromiya Zone and North Shewa zone) and that families were beginning to leave their homes and migrate to different areas in order to earn a little money from waged labour and begging in the larger towns like Dessie, Woldiya and Debre Berhan. The long delay in the belg (short season) rains was said to be a factor increasing the stress on people from the highland areas.

In mid-March the UN Emergencies Unit for Ethiopia fielded a mission to the northern central highlands with the objective of assessing the implications of the delayed belg rains and looking at the general food situation and the impact of a possible belg failure on the prospects for the upcoming meher (main) season. A number of weredas and kebeles in all zones of the northern central highlands, those areas dependent on belg rains and described as especially vulnerable, were visited by the mission. This report provides a general overview of the mission's observations and gives details of the current situation in the five zones visited.


The area along the eastern rim of the northern central highlands (zones from Wag Hamra south to North Shewa) is known to be highly vulnerable to rain failures. Part of the area is dependent on two yearly rainy seasons: belg and kiremt. If either one fails, is delayed or is unevenly distributed, the result is usually a commensurate shortage of staple food (sorghum, maize, teff, barley and wheat) and food security for a large part of the population is threatened.

Belg is the short rainy season normally beginning in February and ending (depending on the area) in late April/May. In belg dependent areas farmers usually sow barley with the first rain. Harvest of the crop is in June/July. If a belg crop cannot be sown before mid-March it becomes highly unlikely that there will be a normal harvest as the kiremt rains from July onwards, frost and unfavourable ripening conditions usually destroy much of the crop. The typical belg dependent areas are usually - but not exclusively - in the higher elevations with a thin layer of fertile soil, a high exposure to torrential rains, frost and strong winds.

Unfortunately, the belg rains are again significantly late in commencing (though some areas of the northern highlands began to receive some rain shortly after the visit of the mission). The delay has prevented the planting of belg crops, long duration cereals (maize and sorghum) and is delaying land preparation operations for the meher season crops. The situation is very similar to the picture last year and is likely to jeopardise further an already precarious food security situation. In all administrative zones visited officials reported an increased number of beneficiaries needing relief assistance. This was attributed to, among other factors, the depletion of the asset base of people due to the cumulative effects of consecutive and prolonged dry spells compounded by a decline in effectiveness of traditional coping strategies.

Overall between 8% and 15% of the entire crop in this area is produced in the often unreliable belg season.[1] This may seem relatively modest. However, in certain areas more than 30% of a zonal population is belg dependent. And it should be pointed out that in mixed belg/meher areas belg crops can be an essential part of the food basket, especially in areas where the main kiremt rains are frequently unreliable.

Meher is the main growing season linked to the long rainy season which - depending on the area - sets in after mid-May and lasts until the end of August/September. Harvest in the meher areas starts in November and can last through to the end of January. Up to 50% of the population in the area is dependent on the kiremt rains for successful meher production.

The northern central highlands had a bad belg season in 1998, a total failure of the belg in 1999 and this year again face a possible failure due to the very late start to the season. Farmers who are entirely belg-dependent will now need food assistance until the next belg harvest in June/July 2001 as this year's belg harvest will be poor if not a total failure. For the present time, the condition of livestock is normal but the delayed belg rains are likely to result in further serious shortages of feed.

A series of missions and reports by the UN Emergencies Unit for Ethiopia (UN-EUE) since 1997 described, analyzed and assessed the situation in the north-central highlands and drew attention to the worrying decline in food security which has never been assured in this part of Ethiopia[2]- .

General Overview: Situation in the Northern-Central Highlands


Crop production

The central highland areas of Welo experienced an almost total failure of the belg harvest last year and at the same time had a poor harvest from the 1999 meher season that brought vastly sub-normal yields. This was attributed to frost in October, which destroyed crops of barley, beans and field peas at the pre-flowering and flowering stages. Furthermore, repeated hailstorms in July and August heavily damaged the meher crops and also contributed to a poor harvest. In certain areas, an outbreak of black beetle/Sorghum Chafer (Pachnoda interrupta) occurred and heavily damaged some stands of sorghum. Water-logging in the lowlands was also a constraint on crops. Noxious weeds like striga (parasitic weed), congress weed (Parthenium hysterophorus), Argemone mexican and Xanthium species are dominant harmful weeds (occurring from Shewa Robit north to Alamata town) and also led to a reduction in yields.
In some areas, the rather meagre meher harvest was totally exhausted by February 2000; other areas are expected to use all available reserves by mid-year. In all the zones visited there were no crops to be seen in the fields.

Linked to the poor harvest performance in recent seasons is the worrying situation concerning the declining availability of seeds. However, the picture is not uniform in all the zones visited. Where farmers in belg areas still have some seed left they indicated that they would try to raise a crop - mostly barley - if the rains arrived before it is too late. Farmers who would have to borrow seed from family/relatives or from other farmers are reluctant to do so even if the rains came. Where the possibility of borrowing is not available and the farmers would have no option but to purchase seed from the market it seems unlikely that after three bad years they would still be able to do so. There is considerable hope that NGOs and humanitarian agencies would provide the required crop seeds for the coming planting season. In some zones and weredas seed credit schemes are in place. Farmers are highly reluctant to accept this help, however, unless they have assurances that in case of a bad harvest (especially for reasons beyond their control) these loans would not have to be repaid.


Last year (February to June), many parts of Amhara region suffered from animal diseases like Foot-and-Mouth, Anthrax and Pasteurellosis which, when compounded with the drought, killed thousands of animals (in South Welo Zone, for instance, 52,612 cattle, 125,900 shoats and 15,171 equines perished)[5]. Skin diseases like mange and skin scab have become more prevalent in the region over the last 2 years partly due to shortages of suitable feed. It is generally accepted that there is a serious shortage of draft oxen in many areas of the central highlands, a situation that appears to have progressively worsened in recent years. The impact of this deficit in terms of loss of production has not been systematically quantified, but along with other factors, such as a shortage of cultivable land and lack of soil fertility, is assumed to be significant. Local officials everywhere complain that the shortage of oxen is a major impediment to increased crop production.

During this mission farmers frequently raised the issue of the very high livestock mortality rates suffered last year. While of concern everywhere, the depletion of animals, especially oxen, was most serious in areas where the animals are used for traction. In all the belg areas of the northern central highlands farmers lamented a shortage of oxen, which had either perished or been sold in order to buy food in the wake of last year's failed belg. The shortage of traction animals not only hampers ploughing operations but also diminishes the already meagre income for some farmers who formerly had traction animals to rent out.

Currently the situation for livestock appears normal and no serious outbreaks of disease or cases of unusual mortality were reported. Nevertheless, the shortage of animal feed is a serious concern everywhere, and a situation likely to worsen if substantial rains are not forthcoming in the weeks ahead. At the time of the mission most farmers had a certain amount of animal feed held in reserve (mostly crop straws, stalks and grass pasture) but enough to last them only until the end of April.

Stress Indicators and Coping Strategies

The people of the northern central highlands have had to fight drought, seasonal rain failures and crop losses for centuries. They have developed a wide range of strategies ("coping mechanisms") in order to survive. Although such coping strategies are very effective, prolonged periods of drought can severely limit the range of economic opportunities available and/or reduce their overall effectiveness, leading to increased vulnerability. In the mid-1980s, war and isolation, as well as drought, certainly greatly limited the capacity of the rural poor to eke out an existence, with the resulting dire consequences.

While civil war is no longer a factor, to some degree the situation now resembles that period. After several poor seasons and with limited relief assistance people have become increasingly impoverished and vulnerable. The situation is not yet desperate as there remain a number of options open to the poor in order to manage, these include:

Labour migration remains widespread and is apparently on a larger scale than the same time last year or in any normal year. It is difficult for the highland farmers to find work in the vicinity of their home areas because in these places land preparation for the meher season had not yet started pending the start of the rains. Many farmers indicated they want to look for work in the coffee producing areas in the south, as was the habit in the past; reports from those areas indicate however that already jobless migrant workers have become a problem. In most cases the coffee producing parts of the country are also facing a food shortages and hence it is highly unlikely that migrants from outside will find work in these areas.

Despite the landscape appearing denuded of trees, there appears to be much more charcoal and firewood on sale than in normal years. But prices are down to 3 Birr for a 30kg bundle of firewood and much below 20 Birr for a large bag of Charcoal. Despite the low prices, finding buyers is becoming increasingly difficult.

Sale of assets and livestock, livestock prices have fallen and are even lower than last year following the failed belg season. Sale of household items was reported although it could not be verified by this mission. (A group of women from Tehuledere Wereda, who had come to Hayk to demand food from the wereda administration, said convincingly that they had sold all household possessions and were now selling the straw from the roofs of their houses in order to buy food.)

Consumption of wild foods was observed in Tenta wereda of South Welo zone in a couple of places where two ladies were observed collecting unusual foods.

School drops out rates of up to 20% were reported during most of the interviews in the weredas. However, it was not possible to establish exact statistics and the few times the team was able to verify the numbers it turned out that food shortage was only one among several reasons given for leaving school. School attendance is always higher at the beginning of a school year and drop out rates of 10% and more are considered "normal" in many parts of the northern central highlands. Having children in school represents a considerable financial burden for many parents hence an increased drop-out rate during times of drought is not uncommon. Drop-out rates were clearly lower, however, where there was a school-feeding program (mostly by WFP) in place. It was reported in some cases students will quit one school to join another where a student-feeding program is available.

The risk of increased stress migration is of great concern to everybody and every organisation working to improve food security in the northern central highlands. In previous crises, especially 1984-85, mass migration developed into one of the biggest humanitarian challenges in Ethiopia. Not surprisingly, all Government officials, UN agencies and NGOs in the area are following the situation attentively.

While there was no significant stress migration taking place at the end of March, the level of labour migration had increased and there had been isolated cases of families leaving home for good - or at least closing the house and moving away in search of food until the rains begin. Aid workers in Woldiya and Dessie report a slightly higher presence of beggars - mostly young and middle aged women, often with a baby or young infant.

The head of the Department of Social Affairs in the South Welo Zonal Administration reported a new form of migration: Young people leave their area in search of labour work and locations for possible resettlement outside the area. Some of these young family heads have already come back to convince family to go with them to the new areas. This may be an indication of the increasing pressure on rural people, especially the landless poor, to seek a better life elsewhere, usually in the main towns and cities.

Emergency Food Aid

Representatives of DPPD and ORDA said that they had been able to distribute emergency food aid to all listed beneficiaries last year. This year, deliveries from central warehouses (Kombolcha) were slow in January 2000. Since February - in certain cases early March - the allocated amounts have arrived late with distributions delayed almost by one month. However, deliveries that should have been distributed for the intended month (January and in many cases February) were not given out retroactively. Families who had borrowed money or food from neighbours and traders on the assumption that they would receive a belated food aid ration had difficulty to repay their loans. The beneficiaries often consider food aid as a form of income, which can - in addition to cover the food need - be used for trade and provide necessary cash.

An official said, "it is we ourselves who are eroding the local coping mechanisms of the victims and accelerating the sale of their belongings by delaying the distribution of food until a victim is completely destitute, without anything. It makes no sense to force people to become absolutely poor before they can benefit from relief assistance. The process of recovery after the emergency will be much longer and more painful if you do".

In general, there is still a limit to how much food aid a family receives. The cut-off is usually five persons per household. This system leads to reduced portions when the standard 62.5 kg of grain received for 5 persons has to be shared with a family of 8, 10 or more family members. Only in Sharia Genet/ Wadla Wereda of North Welo zone did ORDA officials responsible for the food distribution indicate that food deliveries from the central warehouses was satisfactory allowing the cut-off point for families to be raised to 8 or even nine people. Meaning 8 or 9 persons would receive a minimum ration each of 12.5 kg.

Food aid is in all of the region distributed in the form of Food for Work (FFW) and Employment Generating Schemes (EGS). Usually 20% of the allocated amount is distributed freely to elderly and handicapped people who are unable to work.

Distances to the distribution sites remains a problem in most of the northern central highlands. It is not uncommon that people have to walk for two days to receive their ration and bring it home. The distances, rugged topography and the weight of the monthly allocation make it necessary for some of the beneficiaries to rely on others when they get the food support. This of course is not free. Remuneration is usually given in kind, which is to say that a part of the monthly ration has to be sold immediately thus diminishing the intended goal of food assistance. (Typically an old women, living 15 km from the distribution site at Kutaber and unable to get the food herself, receives about 8-9 kg when the monthly portion finally gets to her house.)

The Situation by Zone

Wag Hamra

Wag Hamra Zone comprises three weredas with an estimated population of 329,099. The topography of the area is very rugged, featuring dramatic scarps and almost vertically incised valleys, totally denuded of trees and displaying the signs of considerable erosion. A major portion of the zone is unsuitable for crop production due to the landscape, aridity, poor soil fertility and unfavourable climatic conditions. Major crops grown in the area are barley, wheat, horse bean, field peas, sorghum and teff. Nevertheless, the productivity of the crops is low. Currently, in most parts of the zone it is only the valley bottoms that are repeatedly cultivated and used for crop production. In Wag Hamra Zone, practically, there is nothing that could be added to the soil to augment fertility. Due to a shortage of fuel wood farmers are using dried cow dung for fuel (this year for the first time farmers started to sell cow dung on the market as a means of generating cash) that could otherwise been used to improve soil fertility. Even crop stalks are removed from the fields after harvest (cut at the base and the whole plant collected) and used for purposes like animal feed and roof thatching.

Wag Hamra Zone is largely meher harvest dependent, is chronically food insecure and even in good years it cannot feed itself due to heavy degradation of natural resources coupled with an erratic and uneven distribution of rains, hailstorms, floods, frost, insect pests and weeds. To sustain their living, people are supplementing their earnings with trading (trading in salt is most common where salt cut into blocks from the Danakil Depression is imported to the area through eastern Tigray), waged labour and relief food when the needs are severe.

Normally, during the belg season (February-May) household heads leave their families to look for waged labour in the belg producing areas of North Welo, North Gonder and South Tigray, sometimes working on the few commercial farms in these areas. The fact that the central northern highlands have also been seriously affected as a result of partial or total failure of belg rains and harvest for the last two or three consecutive years means the people in Wag Hamra zone are faced with few options for seeking employment. To date, relief food distributions have been going in various different parts of the zone.

Current Situation

Crop production: two weredas were visited in the zone; Ziquala and Dehana, both of which are remote and chronically food insecure. Based on a post harvest assessment carried out by the zone, 114,966 out of 329,099 people are subjected to a serious food shortage and are relying on relief assistance. This is due to the series of poor harvests both from the 1998 and 1999 meher seasons, and a total failure of last year's belg and the anticipated failure of this year's belg harvest in neighbouring areas which should have served as sources of work opportunities. Dehana wereda, for example, experienced poor harvests for the last 4 meher seasons. In this wereda, due to the lack of belg rains, long cycle crops like sorghum and maize were replaced with short cycle crops like teff and chick pea (mostly failed as well) which are less productive. Barley was not planted in the highlands for the same reason. Currently, farmers in the zone have run out of seeds for the coming meher season planting. Acknowledging the problem FAO was approached for the supply of seeds to the victims. Accordingly 30 metric tons of teff, barley and wheat seed was purchased from Awassa and transported to the zone. Zone officials and farmers, however, questioned the adaptability and performance of these seeds under conditions of recurrent moisture stress, frost and the other typically harsh and fragile circumstances that prevail in Wag Hamra.

Currently, the area appears free of serious livestock diseases nor are there signs of physically poor animals. However, farmers and local officials reported that existing animal feed, mostly the crop residues and straw stored in the backyards of the farmers, would only take them through the end of April this year. Unless the rain starts before the end of April, lack of suitable animal feed could be a potential disaster according to farmers and local officials.

Stress Indicators

Labour migration: During the current period many people from the zone move to neighbouring belg producing zones and weredas looking for waged labour. As a result of repeated crises in their home area people have intensified this pattern of migration despite a deterioration in wages for labour. Local officials reported that this year the level of migration had been contained largely due to the distribution of relief food. Unless food distributions are continued, however, there could be a danger of stress migration. A farmer from Dehana Wereda said, "let the government inform us on time if it is not in a position to supply food - so that we can plan for migration to the west and southern parts of the country".

School dropout: A high level of student turnover is always present for different reasons,. Wereda officials and schools blamed the increase in school dropouts on a shortage of food, however, other economic and social forces may also figure. In Chila Elementary School of Dehana wereda, 169 out of 681 students quitted their education from January to the last week of March. Of these only 6 students left ostensibly due to food shortage.

Market condition: Several markets were visited and in general the supply of cereals was poor while animals for sale appeared weak. Market information obtained from the Ziquala Wereda Office of Agriculture indicated that prices of crops and animals (shoats and cows) had increased from January - mid March as compared to the same time last year. The price for cereals (teff and Sorghum) was Birr 160 per 100 kgs last year while it is Birr 236 for the specified months of this year. While sheep and goats were around Birr 63 each last year whereas they will fetch Birr 80 this year. One possible reason for the increase in price of sheep and goats is the demand available in neighbouring Tigray and the fact that merchants have been purchasing animals for government use. The prices of charcoal and fuel woods have gone down in all areas according to the local people and officials.

Although it is difficult to find hard data for waged labour to analyse the situation in depth, daily labourers working on the rural road construction project from Sekota to Amdework town confirmed the current low prices for waged labour. They are paid Birr 4.25 daily as opposed to Birr 5-8 in previous times.

Human health: The SCF/UK Nutritional Surveillance Program report released in February indicated that since the 1999 kiremt season the nutritional status of the zone had improved due to most farmers receiving some meher harvest. This mission neither heard of any disease outbreak nor saw alarming malnutrition cases although wereda and zonal officials talk of cases of malnutrition from clinics and hospitals which would not help much in indicating the magnitude of the situation.

North Welo Zone

North Welo Zone profits from two highways, which bring in some additional income to offset the otherwise total dependency on agriculture: the South - North road connection Addis - Dessie - Woldiya - Mekelle and the "Chinese Road" which links Woldiya to the regional capital, Bahir Dar. There are also good road connections to Lalibela, a primary tourist centre.

Nevertheless, North Welo Zone is dependent on agriculture and out of the 8 weredas only 2 are able to produce enough to be self-sufficient in the long rainy season. Six weredas are considered to benefit from a mix of meher/belg with a large dependency on the unreliable belg rains. Not surprisingly, North Welo accounts for an above average rate of beneficiaries (compared to the total population). As of the end of 1999 there were 243,145 beneficiaries in the belg dependent areas and more than 300,000 beneficiaries in the meher and mixed weredas.

Belg dependent areas are expected to receive food deliveries until May, on the assumption that from June onwards belg areas could count on the 2000 harvest. This will not be the case and it is imperative that these areas continue to receive assistance until the end of the year. Zonal authorities indicated that they have received food deliveries for all beneficiaries until end April 2000 but stressed that after that it will be extremely difficult to contain migration should food deliveries be reduced or should no food at all reach North Welo. The opinion that at present only food aid keeps a large segment of the rural population from migrating was echoed by all wereda officials met. Rarely, supplementary food is included in the general distribution. It is usually distributed in a much reduced form so as many households as possible can benefit. This form of targeting is unsatisfactorily, dilutes the impact and does not further the intended goal of rehabilitating the malnourished.

In all weredas visited the staple crop is barley which seems to bring the best results at this altitude and under the given climatic conditions. Even while the farmers declared the 2000 belg season a complete failure, most of them were still willing to try and sow barley anyway, especially since there had been a little rain at the end of March/early April. However, there was little evidence of preparation underway for short cycle crops in lieu of barley or sorghum. The reason given is mostly that the farmers do not have the necessary seed to switch from barley to an alternate crop. Another reason could be unfamiliarity with other options like vegetable crop production. In some weredas - mainly in Gidan Wereda/Muja valley and down the escarpment towards Woldiya - irrigation is developed with great energy and considerable success. As there is almost always at least a residue of water in these areas, irrigation seems to be a promising substitution or supplement to the normal production methods.

Firewood and charcoal as a source of income is diminishing as there is less and less wood to be used for this purpose. Sale of assets is so far pretty much limited to the sale of livestock. Evidently, as long as food aid is arriving people will refrain from selling their personal and household belongings. Meanwhile, considerable income is gained from NGO projects particularly through the implementation of EGS projects. For example, more than 2.6 million Birr was invested in a rural road construction programme in Meket Wereda by the British NGO, SOS Sahel. The project is completely handled in the form of Cash-for-Work and enables a wide segment of the population to gain an income, which in turn will stimulate the local market and help ease the precarious food situation.

South Welo Zone

Out of 15 weredas in the zone, 12 are belg producing (more than 75% of annual production) while the remaining are characterised by meher cultivation. A total failure of the belg rains in 1998 and again in 1999 and an inadequate meher harvest last year has further aggravated an already precarious pattern of food insecurity in the zone.

Although all weredas are considered drought-affected, zonal officials reported Laga Ambo, Tenta, Meqidela, Desse Zuria, Ambassel and Kutaber weredas to be the most affected. Among these Tenta, Laga Ambo, Desse Zuria, Kutaber and Ambassel weredas were visited by this mission.

Crop Production: the major belg crops grown in the zone are barley, teff and wheat (relatively long cycle varieties are grown as belg crops) and wheat, barley, beans and peas and teff for the main season (short cycle crops for the meher). However, as a result of the reasons already cited, it was not possible last year to plant long cycle crops (sorghum and maize which are providing high production as compared to the other cereal crops) but rather the normal varieties were replaced with short cycle crops (teff and chickpea). The harvest was insufficient to support the food requirements of the zone. Although the national assessment in October/November identified 785,864 people facing food shortage, the Zonal DPPD informed the mission that by their estimate the number of beneficiaries had reached 1,121,985 people. Out of this figure 422,082 people (totally belg dependent) have been dependent on relief food distributions that began in May 1999. After carrying out a post-harvest assessment the zone reported a total of 699,903 affected people who are meher harvest dependent. For the meher dependent victims, food distribution were planned to commence as of April this year. The reasons for the hike in the number of beneficiaries are: the occurrence of frost in the highlands; shortage of moisture in the lowland areas of the zone; and, pest infestations (black beetle- Pachnoda interrupta, stalk borer- Busseola fusca and variety of weeds). The delayed onset of this year's belg rains has hindered the possibility of planting long cycle crops and it is basically forcing another shift to short maturing varieties.

Livestock Situation: Presently, livestock in all the visited areas was in a satisfactorily condition. However, the 1999 drought caused heavy mortality among animals in the belg dependent areas. A survey by the Agricultural Department of South Welo Zone found that drought-induced mortality was significantly above normal rates among cattle, shoat and equines in the heavily belg dependent areas of Legambo, Ambassel and Tenta weredas. The picture most probably looks similar for other highland, belg dependent areas. As a result of the high level of mortality, livestock numbers in the belg dependent areas have been drastically reduced. Oxen and other animals that are usually used to plough the fields have become scarce. This appears to be one factor why out of 50,000 hectares that was planned only 19,000 hectares of land were ploughed this year.[6] Part of the herd reduction is due to the sale of animals in order to buy food. This practise was accentuated by the method of targeting food distributions, where emergency aid was not handed out as long as a farmer still had any animals at all. This approach, which encouraged processes leading to total destitution, has since been abandoned. However, there still seem to exist a range of different criteria applied in awarding individual eligibility for food aid.

There was considerable fear in the belg dependent areas that last year's mortality rate among animals will repeat itself this year unless rains begin by the end of April.

Stress indicators

Labour migration: in the highlands of Tenta and Laga Ambo wereda, officials reported the prevalence of labour migration (locally known as shiqela) as an early sign of the stress migration which might materialised if there is any interruption to current food distributions. Local people and officials reported that buses coming to Ajibar, the main town of Tenta wereda, are full of people leaving for waged labour in Metema, Wollega, Jimma, Asayita and Dubiti. At the same time, the wereda Disaster Management Committee of Laga Ambo said that Gimba village/Tulu Hawuleya, 80 kms south-west of Dessie, was a "hot spot" for stress migration and begging. However, according to the understanding and feeling of this mission there was no significant stress migration but the higher level of labour migration is confirmed. At the same time, in the same village a number of beggars (mostly ladies and children) were observed. When interviewed, the beggars admitted that they receive relief food but when the food is finished they are forced to resort to begging. It was reported that begging started in the village last year as a result of food shortages.

Food demonstration at wereda council: In Hayk, members of this mission observed and talked to a group of middle aged and elderly women who had staged a sit-down demonstration in front of the offices of the wereda council. The women demanded the opening of the warehouse and the distribution of the food stored there. They had come some distance (mixed belg/meher area) and claimed they had absolutely nothing to eat or sell anymore. The total failure of belg and the poor meher harvest apparently hit their kebele (neighbourhood) hard last year. This demonstration underlined what was to be heard in most of the weredas visited. While most belg farmers are accepted as beneficiaries for food relief, farmers in the belg/meher areas are not accepted although the situation is no better off. In many cases, the 1999 meher harvest was minimal and the food gained lasted only for 2 to 3 months. These areas need support urgently and as planned from mid-2000.

Consumption of wild plants: The mission came across ladies collecting wild food plants in Tenta Wereda. They were interviewed and reported that because their families were large and the provided relief food is finished quickly they are supplementing the ration with wild plants like Urtica sp. (samma in Amharic), Lactuca taraxifolia (Ye'Wefi Gomen in Amharic), Ormocarpum muricatum (anqua in Amharic) and other plants where leaves and roots are consumed boiled.

Firewood and charcoal sales: Although South Welo suffers from the serious degradation of its natural resources like the other zones of the northern central highlands, some remnants of forests still existent and are targeted for firewood at times of food stress. There are scores of farmers streaming into Dessie each morning trying to sell firewood in large quantities. There are signs however that the current supply is too large. Prices have been driven downwards and in some places it is difficult to market firewood and charcoal at all. In Wuchale / Ambassel weredas the mission talked to a group of more than 30 women who had come to market with their 30 kg firewood bundles. They were unable to sell any of the wood in a period of 3 hours, although they were ready to lower the price per bundle to 2 Birr at the close of the market.

School dropouts: the mission visited Aba Boru Meda Elementary School in the highlands of Tenta Wereda where 9 students out of the 24 dropouts (September - March) were reportedly due to food shortage.

Market conditions: generally speaking, crop prices have increased while livestock prices have declined in both weredas visited (Tenta and Laga Ambo).

Oromiya Zone

A brief visit was undertaken by the mission to Oromiya zone (at Kamise) in the Amhara region. The zone has 81 Peasant Associations in three weredas (Bati, Artuma and Chafa Golina). Two of the weredas are dependent on a mix of belg/meher season production. Belg production accounts for 15% of the annual crop production of the zone. However, like the other parts of the region, the 1999 belg harvest was a total failure and at the same time delayed land preparation operations for the meher season crops. Too much rain, hailstorm, floods and water logging in July and August also negatively affected the meher harvest. The other threat to crop production was insect pests, like black beetle (Pachloma interrupta) on sorghum where 67 PAs out of the 81 were affected. The zone also obtains harvest from meher crops dominated by sorghum, maize and teff crops. However, according to the zone council report, only 57,719 metric tons (58%) of grain was obtained from the expected 98,430 metric tons from the meher season harvest. Currently, 135,859 people in the zone need relief food. At the same time it was reported that drought victims require seed for the up-coming meher season planting.

In livestock production, shortage of feed is another problem faced in the zone. According to zonal officials about 350,000 animals are grazing and getting water from the marshy meadow on the outskirts of Kamise town. Nevertheless, it was also indicated that different animal diseases are increasing the level of morbidity largely due to feed contamination in the boggy rangeland. Furthermore, it was said that potentially worsening the shortage of fodder and grazing was an influx of herds (expected to be up to 100,000 head) coming to the area from the neighbouring weredas of the Amphora and Afar regions. As the feared influx of animals materializes, grazing in the marsh will soon be depleted and there could be a serious problem as of the end of April and until the meher rains set in and the grass grows.

North Shewa Zone

Twelve out of 17 weredas in the zone are belg producing. The failure of the belg rains for the last three years has had an adverse affect on crop production. Due to the failure of 1999 belg harvest 283,393 beneficiaries out of 1.3 million residents in the zone have been identified as needing assistance. The local officials unanimously agree that food distributions should continue to these beneficiaries until June 2000. The last meher production also partially failed in the zone leading the DPPD to request relief food for 300,000 victims starting from April until October/November when the meher crops are ready. It is also emphasized that pre-positioning of relief food was imperative for two weredas (Gishe and Lalo Mama) of the zone.

The mission briefly visited Lalo Mama wereda where the short duration varieties of wheat and barley (locally known as amigne) planted in September using residual moisture available are being harvested at the end of March. These varieties of crops are low yielding ones but still could give some harvest that could be used to fill the food shortage gap from March onwards. It is emphasised that shortage of seeds for the coming meher planting is very crucial (although there is a psychological unwillingness from the farmers to receive seeds on credit in fear of the recurrent natural calamities which puts production at risk). An instance in the Oromiya zone exemplifies the default rate encountered where seeds worth of only Birr 300,000 out of Birr 1.2 million was repaid till the third decade of March this year.

Conclusions and recommendations

As a result of at least two consecutive belg failures and a partial failure of last meher, the food and feed shortage in Welo is very critical to both human and livestock. In all the 5 zones visited belg harvest beneficiaries will need to stay on the distribution list for receiving food aid for the rest of 2000; maybe until the next harvest in June 2001. Some farmers in the belg dependent areas, who were up to now considered too rich to receive food aid, may now have lost/sold all their assets and will also need food support. The number of beneficiaries in these areas has increased once more.

Beneficiaries in the mixed belg/meher dependent areas are scheduled to receive food aid starting from April or May. Many have already depleted their stocks from the meher harvest in February/March last year; their situation is now desperate, as they cannot hope for crops from the current belg season. This group needs food support as soon as possible and until - hopefully no longer - the meher harvest in October at the earliest.

The shortage of food, seeds and animal feed are the urgent issues requiring attention and should be addressed systematically. If this fail, as the local officials, farmers and this mission agree, the situation may deteriorate leading to social and economic disruption, the further depletion of basic assets, stress migration and a toll on the health and well being of people and animals. Relief food distributions taking place in the areas visited were not only considered by officials to be inadequate but also delayed in time with gaps up to a month in some places, a fact that clearly reduces the likely nutritional impact of the assistance.

Pre-positioning relief foods (local officials urged this to be done at least before the end of April) is an imperative task in weredas like Ziquala, Dehana in Wag Hamra Zone and Tenta wereda of South Welo, all of which are inaccessible in the main rainy season. Acknowledging the inevitable shortage of seeds for drought-affected farmers, officials in the respective zones have been working on a contingency plan (the contingency plan contains seeds, food and feed requirements) to be implemented as soon as possible before the main rains commence. As to the seeds, it is essential to think of local seeds that are adapted to the recurrent environmental shocks in the respective drought affected areas.

Long term interventions

The areas visited are highly deforested, eroded, denuded, degraded and deprived of natural vegetation. Large, mature trees are very hard to find in most parts of Wag Hamra and Welo zones. Basically, it is felt that any intervention meant for re-afforestation should have been done some thirty years back when there was more forest cover and less soil erosion and moisture stress problems for better survival rates of whatever was planted. Today it is too difficult, perhaps too late to reverse the situation. A fundamental lesson one could draw from this environment disaster is that other relatively forested areas of the country, like the west and southwest are also on the verge of facing the same fate.

There are re-forestation efforts being undertaken by government and NGOs operating in the zones and weredas visited. Thousands and thousands of various tree species are raised and planted every year. But the survival rates of the plantings are much below what could be achieved and in some weredas it is as low as 5%. Understandably, an erratic, uneven distribution and inadequate rainfall is the main factor contributing to the problem. Under such a situation it is more acceptable and practical to go for enclosure of the indigenous bushes and tree species giving them a chance to revive by minimising any human interference.


The designations employed and the presentation of material in this document do not imply the expression of any opinion whatsoever of the UN concerning the legal status of any country, territory, city or area of its authorities, or concerning the delimitation of its frontiers or boundaries.

20 April 2000

UN-EUE Tel.: (251) (1) 51-10-28/29
PO Box 5580, Fax: (251) (1) 51-12-92
Addis Ababa e-mail:

[1] European Commission : Local Food Security Unit, spreadsheet of meher and belg production

[2] - After the failed belg, how do people cope? Observations from South Welo (18-23 1997)

- Field Trip Report: Eastern Amhara Region & South Tigray Zone (9-18 December 1997)

[3] See attached map of area visited

[4] With the exception of Lalo-Mama-Meder Wereda in North Shewa where farmers often try their luck with sowing wheat and barley in September. This crop, which is harvested in March, is called "Amigne" which translates into "hope/trust" and usually gives a very low yield.

[5] Short Summary of Belg Situation in North Welo (2000) by the Agri. Department of South Welo Zone.

[6] Short Summary of Belg Situation in North Welo (2000) by the Agricultural department of South Welo Zone