SAADO Osman straps two bulging sacks of United Nations wheat to her donkey, one of the few animals the 70-year-old eastern Ethiopian herder has left since the rains stopped.
Like millions of others in the Horn of Africa nation she depended on that precipitation to provide fodder and water for her livestock. Now drought has killed 20 of her cattle and goats, leaving her family of 10 with just four animals.
“There is hunger here,” Saado said as she stood among a crowd receiving food relief in Afdem town in Ethiopia’s Somali region on Oct. 8. “For one year it has not rained.”
Rain failure from February to May this year in Ethiopia, one of Africa’s fastest growing economies, was compounded by a short and erratic primary wet season from June to September. That’s left 8.2 million people in need of emergency support, with the crisis set to worsen through September next year, according to the UN.
The effect may spread to Ethiopia’s economy: agriculture accounts for 40% of output, employs almost 77% of the country’s 97 million people and receives significant government support, according to the World Bank.
Exacerbating the drought is El Nino, the periodic warming of the tropical Pacific Ocean in the area around the Equator. Ethiopia’s economy, which has averaged about 10% growth over the past decade, contracted by more than 3 percent in 2003, the last time El Nino occurred.
Ethiopia will spend 4 billion birr ($191 million) combating the drought this year and needs donor support, said Mitiku Kassa, who heads the government’s disaster response committee. There are plans to import 627,000 metric tons of wheat and 20,000 tons of edible oil, he said in an interview in Addis Ababa, the capital.
In total, 15 million people may need food aid in 2015, and an extra $340 million is required for relief efforts this year, the UN said.
The number of children needing emergency treatment for malnutrition reached 43,000 in August, more than during any month in the last major Ethiopian humanitarian crisis in 2011, according to the UN.
“I think we have properly managed the disaster,” Mitiku said. “It’s not out of the control of the government and development partners.”
The area where Ayube Uso’s family lives in the east of Oromia region, about 50 kilometers (31 miles) south of Afdem, at first appears untroubled. Their village abuts fields of sorghum and corn and a tarmac road. In between juts a near-complete Chinese-built railway to a port in neighboring Djibouti, a sign of economic progress.
Yet they’re struggling. Their crops are sparse, stunted and hold a few kernels, or nothing at all. Most years they grow enough to live on—this year, the harvest failed. Ayube, 65, can only recall two times it was this bad: during 2002’s El Nino and in the 1984-85 famine.
That famine was the worst to hit Ethiopia in a century, and some estimates had up to 400,000 dying. It went on to prompt the Live Aid appeal. To help them get by, his wife gathers firewood to sell in a town three hours’ walk away.
The family also gets aid from a donor-funded government initiative that provides relief as payment for work on irrigation channels or hillside terracing. The 10-year-old project, which runs from January to June, will support 7.9 million Ethiopians next year.
Government measures to encourage agriculture include distributing seeds and fertilizer to smallholders and promoting commercial farms. One focus area is the Awash River basin, which supports three state-run sugar projects, cotton plantations and the country’s largest fruit farm.
In the Amibara district of Afar region, 200 farmers in Sa’adin Omar’s community have benefited from government help to irrigate 146 hectares of corn from the river, which is Ethiopia’s longest.
Because of drought, only half the plot may produce crops, and the river level is so low that the hose from their water pump can’t reach it, the 45-year-old said in an interview.
On the village outskirts, among sandy soil and thorn-trees, the carcasses of dozens of cows lay scattered around. The price for the animals has crashed from 7,000 birr to as low as 1,500 birr as desperate herders saturate the market, Sa’adin said.
“There has never been a drought like this,” he said.