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The Evolution of Ethiopian Government’s Early Warning System

Dr Kassahun Bedada Beyi

Dr Kassahun Bedada Beyi is Early Warning and Response Case Team Coordinator with the Early Warning and Response Directorate. This is located within the Disaster Management and Food Security Sector of the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development. He holds a BSc in Plant Science and a MSc in Pest Control. He has a longstanding engagement on early warning activities.

The author would like to acknowledge the support of the Early Warning and Response Directorate.

Disaster Management structures and systems have a relatively short history in Ethiopia having evolved after the 'great famine' of 1973/74 when the first government institution, the Relief and Rehabilitation Commission (RRC) was created. The RRC (subsequently called the Disaster Prevention and Preparedness Commission (DPPC)) had responsibility for providing support to disaster affected populations, particularly for those affected by severe drought. Around this time, the need to develop an early warning system (EWS) as a crucial component of disaster management become apparent, as over a quarter of a million deaths in the central and northern highland areas of the country were reported. The lack of a national preparedness strategy and the absence of an effective EWS revealed a pressing need to concentrate and strengthen the government's capacity to produce early warning information on which to base its response to future emergencies.

The birth of Ethiopia's Early Warning System

The Ethiopian economy has largely been dependent on subsistence agricultural production and any climatic abnormalities can have a direct effect on food production and ultimately on food availability. Therefore, food production monitoring became a key component of the EWS.

The Ethiopian Health and Nutrition Research Institute (EHNRI), backed by the RRC took a leading role in the 1970s in the evolution of the EWS. A system known as the 'Disaster Area Assessment' was developed to assess the levels of food insecurity among drought affected cropping and pastoral communities. The system had weaknesses, however, in that it did not provide continuous monitoring data to inform decision making, though aspects of this system still form part of the national EWS today.

In 1975, an Inter-ministerial Technical Working Group (TWG) was convened under the auspices of the DPPC. The role of the TWG was to advise on the technical aspects of a strengthened system that could provide more reliable and continuous food security and nutrition data by which to assess the national food and nutrition situation. Subsequently, in 1976, the TWG recommended that a permanent system be established to continuously collect information related to food and nutrition. This would link with the activities of government agencies with mandated responsibilities for various aspects of agriculture and food production, including nutrition.

The permanent reporting system was called the 'Early Warning System (EWS)' and emphasised the prediction of food shortages, to distinguish it from its more ad-hoc surveillance predecessor. Rather than set up a new agency to execute this new EWS, the TWG also recommended that the national EWS programme be implemented collaboratively by of the following agencies:

A key principle adhered to when the EWS was officially launched was that activities should be undertaken utilising existing government structures and thereby maximising the use of existing resources. The DPPC is the agency responsible for monitoring the food situation in the country and for taking appropriate measures to mitigate these shortages and therefore, was given the mandate to coordinate the EWS. Other agencies were given the responsibility for data collection.

Preparatory activities, including the training and posting of the first DPPC field agents, arrangement for programme funding and design work occupied most of 1976. The new EWS programme was finally officially launched in January 1977 and remained in place for eight years until the establishment of the Food Information System (FIS) by the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) in 1984.

The EWS and FIS continued to be implemented simultaneously until the collaborative effort could not be sustained and eventually, the FIS committee dissolved and the Early Warning and Planning Service at the DPPC (later changed to the Disaster Preparedness and Prevention Agency-DPPA with additional mandate) took over the full operation of the FIS in 1985.

The system was highly centralised in that data collection, analysis, interpretation and report writing were carried out in the capital, Addis Ababa. Appeals for international relief assistance, relief allocations and decisions regarding relief interventions were communicated from the central level. The role of local authorities and communities in early warning and response was minimal.

The DPPA, although responsible for the interventions, had also been dependent on other line departments for the collection of most of the data needed for early warning. At the same time, these institutions were also carrying out their own early warning activities and there was considerable duplication of efforts.

The socio-political and economic change adopted in the country, particularly after the ratification of the new constitution in 1995, was geared towards decentralisation of power and responsibility to the Regional States and a decentralised disaster management system. Emphasis was placed on the role of local communities for planning, implementation and evaluation of relief measures. In the process, the evolution of a new disaster management system and the implementation of civil service reform brought about major changes to the implementation of disaster management in the country.

The establishment of the Disaster Management and Food Security Sector

In 2008, the power and responsibility of the DPPA shifted to the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development (MoARD) [now MOA]. MoARD established the Disaster Management and Food Security Sector (DRMFSS) comprised of two directorates. One of the directorates, the Early Warning and Response Directorate (EWRD), is today responsible for collection, analysis and dissemination of early warning information on all disasters that impact on food security.

The current system

The EWRD collects early warning information on a regular basis from the District (woreda) level in nine Regional States and one administrative council. The EWRD also works with the government's Emergency Nutrition Coordination Unit (ENCU), which is a unit of the EWRD and has a wider mandate to quality control all nutrition studies in the country (see article on the ENCU in this issue of Field Exchange).

Examples of the types of early warning indicators collected include:

The Regional States each have their own Disaster Management Bureau. Within these, Regional Early Warning Officers are based. Early Warning Offices also exist at woreda level. In four states (Tigray, Amhara, Oromia and SNNPR) they are well established. In pastoral woredas in Somalie, Afar, Gambela, Benshangul-gumz regional states, they are not fully established.

The Early Warning Officers are responsible for the collection of information from the grass roots level. Originally, the system was designed so that woreda level officers, upon receiving information from the grass roots level, would compile and analyse the information. This information is then transferred to the zone and regional offices and also to the federal EWRD electronically. However, the internet system is not yet functional so information is collected using telephone communication from the Zonal Disaster Management Offices. Information from zonal and woreda level is compiled and analysed together with additional information collected from line ministries and other information sources, notably the NMA.

The early warning information is disseminated on a regular basis through a monthly Early Warning and Response Bulletin prepared in the national working language (Amharic) and more recently in English. This is distributed to regional states and different stakeholders in Addis Ababa. The Bulletin contains detailed information on rainfall patterns, crop and livestock conditions, terms of trade (shoat to maize), food prices, water availability, nutrition survey data, nutrition programme coverage and relief pledges (food and non-food items) by region. It also includes information on funding shortfalls by sector (food, nutrition, water and sanitation, education etc) and contains a summary of the key findings from the EWS data.

The regional states are expected to duplicate the EW information and distribute it within their region. Woreda offices are also expected to duplicate the information and distribute it to community farmer's training centres where farmers gather to exchange information with development agents and with each other.

Utilisation of the EWS

The government's EWS has evolved considerably over the years from an ad-hoc surveillance system in the 1970s that focused on drought affected areas, to a highly centralised system in the 1980s which, though more effective did not involve affected communities in decision making, to today's system, which is highly decentralised. The current system utilises local knowledge and information at the grass roots level and has a bi-directional dissemination process of early warning information. Today's system also integrates nutrition information, pastoral as well as cropping area information, and is linked to monitoring programmatic response capacity.

It can be said that the EWS is becoming successful as the demand for EWS related information is increasing, the range of stakeholders to which EWS information is disseminated is growing and information contained in the EWS bulletins is in greater demand. The development of a woreda-net internet infrastructure will increase the speed and transmission of EW information from the grass roots. In addition, the EWRD is working to include satellite information in the EWS to monitor the food production condition in all areas and to predict the likely occurrence of disasters ahead of time more effectively.

For more information, contact: Dr Kassahun Bedada, email:

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Dr Kassahun Bedada Beyi (). The Evolution of Ethiopian Government’s Early Warning System. Field Exchange 40, February 2011. p64.



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