In Ethiopia, Combined Approaches May Be Key to Fighting Climate Change

Climate change and rapid population growth threaten to disrupt Ethiopia’s already instable food supply over the next 40 years. An approach that includes both increased food production and additional access to family planning may be the solution.


Ethiopia Workshop Photo 640
MEASURE Evaluation staff

In Ethiopia and many other developing countries, what experts call the “food system” exists on a precarious state. The difference between the supply of food—the food Ethiopia produces and imports—and the demand—the food Ethiopia’s people need—is so low and so vulnerable that disruptions, such as drought or civil unrest, can quickly put millions of people at risk for starvation. Sixty percent of rural households in Ethiopia already suffer from regular food shortages, with the poor, large families, and rural populations at especially high risk.

Climate change threatens to further tip this delicate balance. Rising temperatures and reduced rainfall will mean that food shortages are likely to become increasingly widespread in Ethiopia and many other countries. As a result of climate change, the relative price of wheat in Ethiopia is expected to rise by 76 percent over the next 40 years. And even as the food supply becomes more vulnerable, the demand is increasing: Ethiopia’s population has doubled over the past generation and continues to rise.

But the worst of these problems can be avoided—if Ethiopia adopts a multifaceted approach, says MEASURE Evaluation PRH’s Scott Moreland. MEASURE Evaluation PRH and the Population, Health and Environment (PHE) Ethiopia Consortium recently completed a comprehensive analysis of the links between climate change, food security and population in Ethiopia. This analysis was based on empirical projections and built after extensive consultation with national and local governments, local non-governmental organizations, as well as local farmers and residents. Moreland presented a summary of that analysis this December at the 2011 International Family Planning Conference in Dakar, Senegal.

“We were able to confirm that effects of climate change, such as increases in temperature and reductions in rainfall are expected to decrease food output in Ethiopia and that this will exacerbate the existing food scarcity in country,” Moreland said. “We were also able to show that most of the shortfall in food in Ethiopia caused by climate change can be mitigated by reducing population growth over a 40-year period.”

The initial forecast is grim. Scientists predict Ethiopia will get between 1.5 and 5.1 degrees Celsius (2.7-9.2 degrees F) hotter over the next 40 years. In addition, they predict Ethiopia’s population will more than double between now and 2050, to somewhere between 154 to 194 million. If the latter “high-growth” estimate takes place, a developing country roughly twice the size of Texas will need to grow or import enough food to feed a population two-thirds the size of the United States. The combined effects of climate change and high population growth will mean a food shortfall of more than 500 calories daily per person, 20% below the WHO recommended level for a population like that in Ethiopia, Moreland said.

While most solutions that are offered for adapting to climate change concentrate on boosting food production, population pressure is often ignored. Family planning offers a way to slow that growth. Ethiopia has made substantial gains in increasing access to family planning over the past 20 years, but millions of women and couples who want access to contraception and family planning lack access to it. The current fertility rate remains high; in Ethiopia today, a woman will, on average, give birth 4.8 times.

Providing family planning to women and couples who want it has numerous health effects for children. Family planning decreases infant and child mortality by reducing the number of births that occur too early and too late in a mother’s life, are too closely spaced, or exist in families that already have too many children. Family planning also reduces the number of maternal deaths and injuries related to pregnancy and childbirth. Families that can control their size are also less likely to be poor and more likely to be able to feed all their members.

Moreland’s analysis found an additional benefit for Ethiopia: By lowering Ethiopia’s population increase over the next 40 years to the “low growth” rate, the projected caloric deficit in 2050 would drop from more than 500 calories to just 130. In this scenario, there would be just half the number of malnourished children there would if Ethiopia had a “high growth” population increase.

Even as family planning helps to control the demand for food, new and improved agricultural techniques, such as increased and better use of irrigation and fertilizers, and more sustainable farming techniques, will be necessary to increase the amount of food that is available.

But a combined approach that allows Ethiopia to control its population growth, as well as increase its food production, offers the best hope for the country, Moreland said.

“When people talk about adapting to food scarcity caused by climate change, they almost always focus on improving agricultural output; they rarely come back to population as an issue that can be addressed,” he said. “Improving the food supply is an important concern, but people can sometimes overlook the demand side as well.”