Tackling Ethiopia’s drought the Canadian way

6 mins read

Ethiopia has a plan in place to build long-term drought resilience and rural food, which is almost exactly what Canadians did to build drought resilience on the Prairies during the Dirty Thirties. What the country needs now is money.

Thu., June 8, 2017

In this photo taken in January, 2016, a farmer shows his failed crops and farmland in the Megenta area of Afar, Ethiopia. The farmer said he has lost 100 percent of his crops. (MULUGETA AYENE / AP)

What if I told you there was a way Canadians could help save millions of lives and fight climate change at the same time. And what if I also told you this method has already been tried and tested in Canada and the U.S. It’s ready to go, all it needs is funding. Would you support it? Would you tell your local MP that the government of Canada ought to invest in it?

This investment would be made in Ethiopia, where I recently represented Canada at a meeting of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Although the meeting concerned the future impacts of climate change across the globe, it was hard to ignore the immediate climate challenges faced by the host country.

The Horn of Africa is experiencing its worst drought since the 1980s, and appeals are already being made for emergency famine relief for South Sudan and Somalia. Nearly eight million Ethiopians live in drought-stricken areas, but unlike its neighbours, Ethiopia has a stable, functioning government.

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Granted, that government has an authoritarian bent and a spotty human rights record, but it spends more than 60 per cent of its budget on social and economic development. So it’s not some tinpot dictatorship.

In fact, Ethiopia hosts 600,000 refugees from its conflict-prone neighbours. It is one of the world’s poorest nations, but it’s trying hard and has achieved steady economic growth over the past decade of close to 10 per cent annually. In short, Ethiopia is an emerging success story in a region that desperately needs one.

All this progress may be undone if the rains don’t come in the next 10 weeks. Ethiopia has a plan in place to build long-term drought resilience and rural food security, but it needs additional funds right away. We know this plan will work, because it’s almost exactly what Canadians did to build drought resilience on the Prairies during the Dirty Thirties, and how Americans overcame the hardships of the Dust Bowl that same decade.

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Ethiopia’s plan is called the Productive Safety Net Program (PSNP). Money from foreign donors and loans from the World Bank are invested in rural water infrastructure, in soil erosion prevention measures, such as tree planting and slope terracing, and in new roads and social infrastructure.

Farmers who lose a crop or struggle to feed their kids can get paid work on PSNP projects. External audits show that PSNP is working. More than 7.8 million Ethiopians have benefited since the program was established a decade ago. Food production has risen and soil erosion has fallen. Over 2,800 km of irrigation canals have been built, along with 200,000 storage ponds, and 35,000 wells. Rural areas have 4,000 new classrooms and 600 new health posts.

And it’s not just Ethiopians who benefit from PSNP — we all do. PSNP projects have created new forests and vegetation that remove 200,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere annually. That’s equal to taking 40,000 cars off the road. It’s far from solving all our climate change problems, but in an era of rapid global warming, every additional hectare of forest is needed. And since it simultaneously helps poor farmers improve their lands and withstand drought, it’s a win-win proposition.

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This drought could overwhelm Ethiopia, it’s that severe. Now is the moment when additional financial support for PSNP from Canada and like-minded countries is needed.

If we wait until a full-on famine breaks out in Ethiopia, lives will be lost and years of hard work will evaporate. So while Canada can and should be sending emergency relief to victims of the current famines in Somalia and South Sudan, we should also be making investments that prevent future famines.

In Ethiopia, we can do so in a way that we know from our own experience works, and which helps offset some of the carbon dioxide emitted by our cars’ tailpipes. It’s an investment we can’t afford not to make.

Robert McLeman is associate professor of geography and environmental studies at Wilfrid Laurier University.

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