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'Green drought' hides hunger in Ethiopia

By Emily Wither for CNN
  • "Green drought" is when late rains delay crop harvests but the land looks flourishing
  • Agencies say many Ethiopians are facing serious food shortages
  • Farmers are planting again now in the hope that the rains continue
  • Plan International is encouraging farmers to grow more drought-resistant crops

(CNN) -- Images of Ethiopia's leafy, green vegetation may not match everyone's idea of what a drought should look like but this is the other face of the catastrophe affecting millions in the region.

Long-anticipated rains may have fallen in parts of this landlocked country in the Horn of Africa, but they came too late to produce desperately needed crops.

"People are facing a serious food shortage, even though they're surrounded by greenery," said David Throp from children's development organization Plan International in Ethiopia.

"This year, the rains that allow seeds to germinate and crops to start to grow did not come. As a result, families were not able to harvest crops when they normally do," he continued.

The World Food Program (WFP) says it is feeding 3.7 million people with emergency food assistance in Ethiopia, mostly affected by drought, with up to 15 million people affected in the Horn of Africa as a whole.

People are coming here and it's raining, which makes the drought not as visible.
--Natasha Scripture, WFP Ethiopia

But the needs are very different region to region says Natasha Scripture from the WFP in Ethiopia.

"It's interesting during this crisis because people are coming here and it's raining, which makes the drought not as visible," she said.

"But drought is not necessarily the lack of rain, it can be a timing issue; if one cycle of rain is affected, as we saw with the short rains in February and March, the later rains will also be affected," she continued.

Rain in Ethiopia this year has been irregular and fallen at the wrong times -- for example this year's short rains didn't arrive until May. In order for crops to grow and flourish a full cycle of rain is needed, otherwise they can't be harvested and eaten.

Adanech Woyna lives near Shebedino, a small town south of the capital Addis Ababa. The 39-year-old mother of five told Plan International that she lost nearly all of her crops because the rains did not come on time.

"The maize plants are growing now, but they are far behind the normal season," she explained. "We are going to be dealing with these food problems until September at least, when we hope we can harvest this maize and feed the family."

Issa Kipera is acting country director at the agency; he says it is helping the farmers plant again in the hope that the rains continue.

One of the things we are trying to do is diversify the crops here...
--Issa Kipera, Plan International Ethiopia

But the rains could fail again. As well as assisting with the immediate needs of malnourished communities, Plan is looking at more drought-resistant crops for the future.

"One of the things we are trying to do is diversify the crops here so there are some crops that will produce in a short period and others that are drought resistant," Kipera said.

He explained that the agency is introducing crops such as sweet potatoes and Enset.

Enset is a type of Banana that's sometimes called a "miracle crop" because even if it gets a little rain it can still be harvested. It's also known as "false Banana" because it doesn't actually bear fruit; instead the root is used to make a kind of flour.

The agency says it is also looking towards honey production and is training farmers on how to process, harvest and sell it at market.

"This is also a drought-resistant product, so as long as you have the right beehives and technology it's viable, especially in green drought," Kipera explained.

In the meantime many farmers have to work as laborers to earn extra money as they don't have any crops to sell.

A woman called Bolgitu, also living near Shebedino, told Plan she's looking after twin babies, Kibiru and Kisu, while their mother collects food.

"The father of these boys is now working as a laborer in the village to make a little money to buy food. This year everyone is short of food," she said.

She added: "We've already been forced to eat our maize seed. Those seeds were our future. There's nothing to harvest. There won't be anything to harvest for several months."

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