Drought and Famine in Ethiopia

recurring cycles of drought and famine in Ethiopia
To address its recurring cycles of drought and famine, Ethiopia must use Nile for irrigation and require foreign governments leasing land in the country to help its farmers.

By Ambassador Herman Cohn,

According to press reports, Ethiopia is currently going through a very severe drought, and is in dire need of international food assistance to make up for failed crops.

Ethiopia has a history of famine situations due to drought. During every drought year, the international community has been supportive with shipments of food relief. Since the year 2002, Ethiopia has been coping nicely with dry weather. The construction of new roads has allowed the movement of food crops from wet regions to dry regions, thereby making it unnecessary to call for international aid. In view of the improved transportation situation, the fact that food aid is needed in the year 2015 indicates that the drought situation must be truly severe. In short, the entire country must be having a rain deficit and not just certain regions as in the past.

This might be a good time for Ethiopia to take another look at the entire agricultural situation. For example, a high dam is under construction on the Blue Nile River. This dam is causing great anxiety in Sudan and Egypt who depend one hundred percent on the waters of the Blue Nile for their existence. With this dam currently under construction, there is still no agreement on the division of the waters.

Instead of concentrating on the production of electric power with the waters of the Blue Nile, it might be more useful to the people of Ethiopia if the waters of the Blue Nile could be used for irrigation rather than power generation. Here again, an international agreement would be necessary among Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt regarding the division of the waters.

In addition, the government of Ethiopia has leased large tracts of arable land to foreign governments that are facing food shortages in their own countries. While allowing these governments to grow food crops on their leased land for export to their own countries, Ethiopia really derives very little benefit apart from the leasing fees. The people of Ethiopia, above all, receive very few benefits.

The Government of Ethiopia should require the foreign governments to associate Ethiopian farmers in these schemes, including the provision of industrial machinery, seeds, and irrigation equipment.

Whatever solutions that the Ethiopian government choose for their drought problems, they can be sure that the American government will never say no to famine relief.


Ambassador Herman Jay “Hank” Cohen was Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs from 1989 to 1993. He served in the U.S. Foreign Service for over 38 years.