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Infrastructure: the tool to stop the escalation of drought to famine

By Bereket Gebru


There have been numerous exaggerated reports on the ongoing El Nino driven drought in Ethiopia. From intentionally overstating the number of people affected by the natural calamity to filing a fictitious story about people and animals dying of hunger, the coverage of the daringly self-proclaimed international media has been wildly inaccurate.

It seems that most of the world is still clinging, albeit loosely, to Ethiopia’s drought and famine ravaged past. Despite the global nature of the El Nino effect that resulted in minimal seasonal rains, reports of drought in Ethiopia are almost automatically taken out of proportion to mean hunger and famine. It is as if the whole world gets spooked on reports of drought in Ethiopia.

There are quite a number of countries that have experienced drought recently. As a natural phenomenon, drought occurs both in the developing and developed world. Major world powers like the US and Russia have been hit by severe drought just recently. The drought in the US state of California is still lingering after nearly three years. The self-proclaimed international media, however, do not seem to talk about those as the dawn of the apocalypse.

The major explanation for the media’s easy take on drought in major powers and big hype in its occurrence in developing countries like Ethiopia is that they are almost certain that it won’t deteriorate into famine in the case of the former. Periodic drought was reported between the beginning of the 1960s and the early 21 century in Ethiopia with a couple of those becoming high profile cases of famine. Especially the 1985 famine made Ethiopia’s name almost synonymous with famine as it received international publicity while claiming the lives of over 400,000 citizens.

The basic difference between the developed and the developing world in relation to drought is that the former have the infrastructure and other capabilities in place to avert the escalation of the problem into famine. Some scholars also raise political incentive and accountability as a factor pushing for checking drought in its strides in the developed democratic world. Policies and strategies are also raised as other factors.

Unlike drought, famine can have artificial causes such as price hikes of food items in certain localities supplementing natural causes such as lack of seasonal rainfall. Famine can also be a result of belated, not enough or entirely absent food and relief assistance to drought stricken communities.  

As a result, the expansion of infrastructure in a country is a vital indicator of its ability to avert famine. The presence of ample transport facilities and the accessibility of drought affected communities by road determine whether drought in those areas can be checked or not.

A good example of how infrastructure contributes to the escalation of drought into famine is the 1985 famine in Ethiopia. A report by the USAID in 1987 entitled Final Disaster Report: Ethiopia Drought/Famine 1985/86 states:

In 1984, the world came to know, through the nightly television news broadcasts, the tragic plight of the famine victims in Ethiopia. By the end of 1984, with nearly 8 million people In Ethiopia considered at risk of death due to starvation, appeals were made for 1.3 million metric tons of food, in addition to millions of dollars in other emergency relief supplies. The response was tremendous.

Over 1.5 million metric tons of emergency food were distributed at the height of the famine, reaching an estimated 7.1 million people. Concurrently, nearly one billion dollars was provided by the international community in non-food relief aid, logistical support and recovery programs. More than 60 organizations directly administered relief assistance, receiving donations from 36 different governments and innumerable individuals and private organizations.

On the part dealing with logistics, the report states:

“By early 1985, the principal constraint confronting the relief effort was no longer the quantity of relief food. Ethiopia literally had more food aid than it could handle. Logistics had become the bottleneck. The relief operation required almost two million tons of commodities to be moves in 1985-86 across some of the world’s most rugged terrain to reach the millions in need. Compounding the natural barriers were man-made ones.

Ethiopia’s transportation infrastructure is very limited. It has a single functioning rail line, a limited road network and ready access to only three ports. In 1985, Ethiopia’s truck fleet was, on average, 11 years old and plagued by a shortage of spare parts and tires.

… the discharge rate (of cargo from ports) exceeded the rate that trucks took food out of the ports, leading to an ongoing backlog of over 150,000MT at Assab. The enormous backlog slowed discharge as there was literally no place to put the arriving food. On occasion, shipment were delayed or diverted to other ports (which, in turn, created a storage problem at Djibouti, although on a smaller scale).”

As has been extensively depicted in the above excerpts, infrastructure and transportation of logistics play an immense role in combating drought and famine. With more than ample food assistance given to the Derge regime, according to the report, it was the factor of infrastructure that weighed heavily on the success of relief efforts.

Another major factor affecting relief efforts is policy. The adoption of the resettlement program as a primary policy direction by the Derge regime led to the allocation of dire resources to it than the provision of aid to communities in their localities. Jason W. Clay and Bonnie K. Holcomb, in their book entitled Politics and the Ethiopian Famine: 1984-85 quote the New York Times of 19 November, 1985 as writing:

The four transport helicopter at Kombolcha are part of 24 sent by Moscow with 300 trucks and a dozen Antonov – 12 transport planes to carry food and relief supplies to the 6.4 million people said by the Ethiopian government to be suffering from prolonged drought and famine.

The book goes on to state that the New York Times later reported: the helicopters are to be based at the northern towns of Aksum, Mekelle, Kombolcha and Gondar and used for short shuttle flights, Ethiopian officials said.

It further writes that on 3 January 1985, The Washington Post observed: the Ethiopian government has proclaimed resettlement as its most important priority and with the help of 12 Soviet built Antonov cargo aircraft and more than 300 Soviet built trucks, about 20,000 peasants are moving south each week.

After these reports, the book goes on to analyze that it was clear that logistical problems confronted in the distribution of donated food from the West would not impede the resettlement program. Although food often could not be cleared from the docks, adequate fuel and vehicles were made available for resettlement through May, precisely the time when stories began to surface that the donated food was rotting on the docks for lack of transport. In April and May, an additional 100,000 people had been resettled.

The above account of activities during the 1985 famine clearly show that policies have the capacity to push drought further into famine or prolong the severe impacts of an ongoing famine. By prioritizing resettlement above the provision of food relief to victims of famine, the Derge regime allocated whatever meager resources were available to it for resettlement. In doing so, the government compounded the logistical problems in distributing food aid to the affected areas lowering the possibility of rescue of victims along the way. The use of famine as a weapon to fight opposition armed struggle in some of the northern regions is also a perverted move as it claimed the lives of innocent people affected by the problem.

Current Conditions

The current drought in Ethiopia comes after a dozen years of double digit growth in the country’s economy. It comes at a time when the country’s health, education and infrastructural facilities have undergone considerable transformation. The policies adopted by the government also prioritize providing food relief to affected communities more than anything else.


The Growth and Transformation Plan Annual Progress Report 2012/13 states that the federal and regional total road length has increased from 56,190 in 2011/12 to 58,338km in 2012/13, indicating the construction of 2,148 km by federal and regional roads in the year 2012/13. This indicates that a total of 9,538km of roads were constructed in the last three years (of the GTP) from the beginning of Growth and Transformation base year (48,800).

A total of 20,645km of woreda roads were constructed under the URRAP during the year under review. This has in turn resulted in an increase in all weathered woreda roads to 27,628km. This has also resulted in an increase in road density per 1000 km2 from 57.4km in 2011/2012 to 78.2 km in 2012/ 2013, which indicates (20.8 km) 36 percent increment over the previous year. Moreover, the proportion of acceptable roads (Good+Fair) has increased from 81percent in 2009/10 to 86 percent in 2012/2013. Because of increased road density and improvement in the quality of roads, the average vehicle coverage per day (measured by km per day) has also increased. Accordingly the average annual vehicle coverage per day (measured by km per day) has increased from 14.4 in 2011/12 to 14.7 in 2012/13.The average travel time to all weathered roads has also decline to 2.1 hours in 2012/13 from 2.9 hours in 2011/12.This shows local community access to different social services such health and education within a short period of time.

With this much improvement recorded only over the first three years of the GTP period, road construction has seen its brightest day in Ethiopia during the past two decades.


The Growth and Transformation Plan Annual Progress Report 2012/13 states that a total 2,395 Km railway lines are planned to be constructed during the GTP period. In 2012/13, priority was given to the construction of the Addis Ababa-Djibouti national railway line and the Addis Ababa Light Rail Transit. Accordingly, 22% and 20% of the total construction works of the Addis Ababa/Sebeta-Mieso (317KM) and Mieso-Dewanle (339KM) projects have been accomplished respectively. Feasibility studies and other pre-construction preparatory works of the Awash–Woldiya/Hara Gebeya (389KM),Woldiya-Hara Gebeya-Mekele(268KM) Woldiya/Hara Gebeya-Semera-Asaiyta (229KM 50 and the Asaiyta-Tajura (210KM) railway projects have been undertaken. Likewise preparatory works are in progress for Addis Ababa/Sebeta-Ijaji-Jimma-Bedele and Mojo-Hawasa-Boditi-Woito railway projects.

Currently, the Ethio-Djibouti railway has gone operation ahead of schedule to cope up with the bulk transportation needs of the relief effort for those affected by the drought.

A BBC report quotes Getachew Betru, chief executive of the Ethiopian Railways Corporation (ERC), as saying "We decided to open the railway early because of the drought.”

The report further states that the first train to travel along the nearly 800km track delivered more than 3,000 tonnes of grain from Djibouti port to drought-affected areas. It took the train 10 hours to travel the distance as the journey was a trial endeavor that required the train to go at very slow speeds.  

The BBC report further notes that the ERC says the railway will completely transform the way humanitarian assistance is delivered. "The trains will deliver bulk quantities of food aid very close to drought-affected people. It will do this in a matter of a few hours," says ERC technical adviser, Muluken Mesfin.

It goes on to say "One thousand five hundred trucks a day leave Djibouti port for Ethiopia," says the chairman of the Djibouti Port Authority, Abubaker Hadi. "It is projected there will be 8,000 a day by 2020. This is not feasible. That is why the railway is so desperately needed."

Mr Getachew agrees: "It can take trucks two to three weeks to reach Addis from Djibouti. They break down all the time and the road gets congested. Once it is fully operational the railway will cut the journey to about five hours, as the trains will travel at 120 km/h. This will save money as well as time."

The railway connecting Djibouti to the heartland of Ethiopia can be very instrumental in cutting down the discharge rate of commodities coming through the port of Djibouti. Complemented by the construction of other intricate railway lines to all the four corners of the country, humanitarian assistance endeavors are much easier to implement than it was during the 1980s.


The boom in infrastructural projects in the county over the years of its double digit development has made a majority of the Ethiopian hinterlands accessible by road. Whether it is all weather roads or low grade roads connecting woredas, roads have become an integral part of the Ethiopia of today.

Compounded with the capacity of trains to transport huge bulks of commodities from ports or other distribution centers, the process of reaching out to communities affected by the drought has become more manageable. Accordingly, Ethiopia is in a much better position to avert famine and hunger from the current problem of drought. Perhaps that might be a vivid indicator of the economic strength and process of democratization in the country, as some would argue.


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