By Alex Whiting
ROME, Sept 5 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - It is possible to protect the world's poorest from the worst impacts of drought, even in Ethiopia where back-to-back droughts have left 8.5 million people in need of food aid, heads of U.N. food agencies said after a tour of the country.
But more investment is needed in long-term projects that can help prevent future droughts from developing into major food crises, they said on Tuesday.
Ethiopia's Somali Region, where rains have failed for the third consecutive year, is experiencing emergency levels of hunger - one level below famine in a five-point scale used by food agencies.
About 2 million animals have died there since the end of last year, crippling herding communities, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
"A drought does not need to become an emergency," said Gilbert Houngbo, president of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), which provides governments with loans and technical expertise for rural development projects.
Investment in irrigation, water points, rural financial institutions, health and veterinary services helps communities to protect themselves and their livestock through even a devastating drought, he said.
"We know what works ... This is what we need to build on," Houngbo said in a statement.
Eastern and southern Africa were hit hard last year by drought exacerbated by El Niño - a warming of sea-surface temperatures in the Pacific Ocean - that wilted crops, slowed economic growth and drove food prices higher.
A strong aid response almost halved the number of Ethiopians needing food aid to 5.6 million by January. But the drought was followed by poor spring rains in the south and east of the country.
Herding communities need emergency aid to keep their remaining animals alive, as well as long-term help to improve their resilience to droughts, according to FAO.
"We've witnessed here that saving livelihoods means saving lives - it is people's best defence against drought," said Jose Graziano da Silva, FAO's director-general.
"It is essential to invest in preparedness and provide farmers and rural communities with knowledge and tools to safeguard themselves and their livelihoods," he said.
In Ethiopia's Tigray region, irrigation schemes, fruit nurseries and health centres are boosting productivity, incomes and nutrition, helping communities better withstand external shocks like droughts, the U.N. agencies said.
Models used by the U.N. agencies in Ethiopia will be replicated and scaled up around the world, said David Beasley, head of the World Food Programme, which distributes emergency food aid to 3.3 million people in Somali Region.
"We need to save lives while investing to support (a) sustainable, resilient environment for communities across the globe so they prosper and succeed," he said.
(Reporting by Alex Whiting @Alexwhi, Editing by Ros Russell.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)
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