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Beyond Institutional Politics, Technical Debate to Alleviate Drought Crises




The string of challenges that Addis Abeba has faced in its 125 year history, might have started to fade with the flourishing of its commercial centres, the expansion of its diplomatic representations, and the booming of its infrastructure backbone. Nevertheless, historical records show that it has been the hotspot of geopolitics, from the popular student movement of the 1960s to the devastating famine of 1985. Diverging arguments, truths, and accounts, accompanied the range of disaster decisions that the city has hosted.

Since its foundation, the city has also seen spectrums of government indecision. The debate on drought disasters and projections for emergency food aid has transcended the changing hands of governments, which have based their political and economic capital in Addis Abeba. Accusations and counter accusations on the size, intensity, and impact of droughts continue to set the stage for debates amongst governments and aid agencies.

The current drought in the Horn of Africa, where over 11 million people are affected, has brought the debate back. With about 4.5 million people in need of emergency food aid in Ethiopia, a zest of controversy has haunted Addis Abeba. Yet, this time, the debate has transformed from a numerical squabble, although it still prevails, to the swiftness of emergency responsiveness.

The government claims that it rang the alarm about its food aid demand as far back as October 2010. As any other drought projection, the number of people in need of food aid has increased along with the rigorous monitoring, it claims. Although there has been an awareness of vulnerability for the past nine months, the agencies could only guarantee 25pc of the demand. Poor donor responsiveness and logistical snags have limited the overall emergency response system, claims the government.

International aid agencies, including the World Food Program (WFP) and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) counterclaim that they were the ones to set the alarm as early as August 2010. They also stated that the number of people in need of emergency food aid would increase.

The government’s disbelief of emergency projections made by multilateral institutions, restrained their response, claim international aid agencies. Although the early warning systems of multilateral institutions are credible, the politicisation of numerical estimates spoils the righteous efforts of disaster management. The government remained belligerent to aid agencies and their projections, they claim, and this destabilises the whole response system.

The political opposition believes most of the claims made by aid agencies, although they add another big monster into the play; governance. For them, frequent droughts in the country are aggravated by a governance deficit. Respective governments in the past century failed to respond swiftly to droughts, as the intensity of the disasters become more amplified with each crises.       

Poor investment in the integrated early warning system seems to challenge the whole establishment of drought risk management in the country. Compounded with the unsettled politics of aid, which according to historical records, dates back to 1543, it aggravated the magnitude of damage that recurring droughts are inflicting on people.

The number of people in need of emergency food aid has increased from 2.8 million in 2010 to 4.5 million in 2011, representing a 60pc growth, according to the Ethiopian government. The number had declined by 900,000 between 2009 and 2010.

The figures between donors and the government differ significantly, with a difference of about 2.4 million in 2010, while it stood at three million the previous year. At any given time, the aid agencies’ estimate is greater than the government’s by an average of 68.3pc.

Comparatively, the controversy on numbers has subsided this time around. Instead, responsiveness becomes an issue. So far as the early warning system provides the establishment of observing, recording, analysing and disseminating disaster information, the debate should boil down to the early warning system.

The establishment of the Ethiopian drought early warning system goes back to 1985, when the socialist military regime established the Relief and Rehabilitation Commission (RRC). The current government had re-established the commission as the Disaster Prevention and Preparedness Commission (DPPC) in 1995. Now under the Ministry of Agriculture (MoA), the commission integrates information from the National Meteorological Services Agency (NMSA), the Ethiopian Nutrition Institute (ENI), and the Central Statistics Agency (CSA).

Besides anecdotal evidence, however, no data verifies that the risk knowledge and recognition of the commission were more effective than the warning signals extended by the famine early warning system network (FEWSN) of USAID or the humanitarian early warning system of the WFP. Instead, plethora of research on warning reliability, margin of uncertainty, cost analysis, urgency indicators and severity measures show that the Ethiopian early warning system is less reliable.

One sample survey shows that the system had embraced a marginal error of 15pc and 20pc during projections in 1993 and 1996, respectively. Relatively, the system was found to be more precise in forecasting sudden-onset threats than slow-onset threats, such as droughts, at an error range of five per cent to 10pc.

In contrast, the WFP and FEWSN systems have a maximum error of aggregation of 10pc. Whereas the WFP deploys an integrated multiple hazard warning system with six categories and over 45 major indicators, FEWSN system uses a common alert protocol system of four categories. Besides decentralised observation, both systems guarantee enhanced monitoring of hydrological, Meteorological, crop and nutrition situations.

Poor investment on integrated early warning systems has aggravated the controversy surrounding droughts. Although responses highly depend on projection certainty, the investment deficit is a hindrance on response efforts. The absence of a capital budget dedicated for early warning in 2011/12, and the trivial recurrent budget of 1.7 million Br, shows an insufficient level of attention in terms of policy.

An inadequate decentralisation of the warning system challenges the prevailing risk management establishment. Embracing the whole 1.1 million square kilometres of land area of the country within the early warning system is not easy or cheap. However, the decreasing average rate of drought recurrence, which declined from nine to three years in the past two decades, in the northern and eastern hot spots, warrants special attention and prioritised investment. With a lack of such decentralisation, the error of aggregation increases. Certainly, this is a considerable deterrence of response planning.

Poor telecommunications infrastructure also affects warning dissemination, as well as data quality. Unlike the warning system of multilateral institutions, which is supported with Geographic Information System (GIS), web mapping, and sensor webs, acquiring real time data is difficult in the MoA’s system. For it remains dominantly manual, the data lag time is considerably large, causing its uncertainty component to heave up.

Insufficient interaction in warning prediction amongst the scientific community, policy makers, and the public, is also another challenge. No permanent tripartite early warning consultative forum exists; therefore, indigenous disaster management knowledge, with scientific data generated by relevant authorities and academic observatories, is weakly integrated. Although reactive community-based response efforts have been scantly employed, no concerted pre-disaster endeavour exists.

Complemented with the deeply ingrained factional politics of aid provision, the controversy on responsiveness diverges with each event. Short of technicalities, the debate is often futile.

Creating a reliable early warning system demands planned capital investment on technology, infrastructure, and human development. The government should scale up expenditure in the sector because this will minimise the damages to human life, household assets, livestock, and stored provisions. Training skilled professionals on early warning systems design and management should be the entry point to addressing the chronic problem.

The integrated deployment of the IGAD, WFP, USAID and MoA early warning systems may be a short-term solution to enhancing projection certainty. The government should focus on the technical reliability of the systems rather than institutional politics. Integrating the systems reduces marginal error and the cost of response planning; it should not be spared for the sake of politics.  

Integrating scientific knowledge with indigenous knowledge should also be provided with adequate attention. Creating a permanent early warning consultative forum helps push this forward. The forum should create a learning environment for the government as well as aid agencies.

At the height of it all, though, parties on the emergency response discourse should go beyond the usual blame game. They should rise beyond the challenge to establish a flexible early warning structure that lives up to the demand of all the interests. Doing so would take the narrative of Addis Abeba to another level, beyond any other era in the past.





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