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Experts are predicting northern Ethiopia will experience the worst drought in generations

The U.S. is concerned that conditions could lead to instability

Washington CNN  — 

The Obama administration is sending disaster response teams to northern Ethiopia to try to address a humanitarian emergency and avoid a national security risk to the U.S. should the drought there spiral out of control.

Experts are predicting northern Ethiopia will experience the worst drought in generations, one that will surpass the 1984 famine that killed one million men, women and children and galvanized stars like Michael Jackson, Stevie Wonder and Bruce Springsteen to record the 1985 charity song “We are the World.”

The Ethiopian government – a major partner in U.S. counterterrorism efforts – estimates that 10.2 million people will need food assistance, on top of about 8 million people who are chronically food insecure, and up to 2 million people will need safe drinking water. The United Nations estimates that as many as 15 million Ethiopians could suffer acute malnutrition or worse unless more help is found.

“We are acting to prevent a major humanitarian crisis and protect Ethiopia’s hard-earned development progress,” Gayle Smith, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, said Thursday In announcing the deployment of a Disaster Assistance Response Team.

She also called on additional countries to pitch in.

“Other donors must also step-up their responses now,” she said.

Intervening isn’t just a moral issue but also a matter of national security, U.S. officials said.

“Climate-related threats pose an urgent and growing threat to our national security, contributing to increased natural disasters, refugee flows and potential conflicts over basic resources like food and water,” said USAID spokesman Ben Edwards.

The U.S. is concerned that conditions could lead to instability, that a situation where there’s a lack of food and jobs could encourage young people to join extremist groups while refugees flows destabilize population centers.

Ethiopia works with the U.S. on threats in the Horn of Africa, a conflict-ridden area plagued by the terrorism of al-Shabaab, among other groups. The area encompasses Sudan, Somalia and Djibouti – home to the U.S. naval expeditionary base Camp Lemonnier – as well as Sudan, Kenya and Ethiopia. Events in the region often impact Yemen, Libya and Egypt.

In January, a bipartisan group of lawmakers visited the Ethiopian capital to express support for the country’s help on regional threats.

Rep. Ed Royce, the California Republican who heads the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said that thanks to Ethiopia’s “efforts to confront extremism, al-Shabaab has not expanded footholds in the Horn of Africa” and commended its contributions to peacekeeping missions.

Smith, of USAID, said the administration will send an elite team of nearly 20 disaster experts to provide technical assistance, conduct humanitarian assessments and coordinate relief efforts with partners on the ground. She also said that the U.S. would provide nearly $4 million in maize and wheat seed for more than 226,000 households.

Ethiopia has made strides in creating greater food stability, according to the U.N., but its ability to predict the severity of this drought, after unreliable rainy seasons in the north, was complicated by an ocean-warming El Niño that scientists say is altering weather worldwide, bringing drought to California and unseasonably warm days in New York.

While international assistance is arriving, Ethiopia is also competing for aid with human disasters unfolding in war-ravaged Syria and Yemen and a refugee crisis in Europe, all of which are contributing to donor fatigue, experts say.

The new U.S. funds announced by Smith today add to more than $532 million in humanitarian assistance to Ethiopia since October 2014 for emergency food assistance, safe drinking water and nutrition and health support. Some of that money went to better prepare Ethiopia and other Horn countries for natural calamities like these that are almost predictable.

In 2011, when the Horn of Africa experienced the worst drought in 60 years, USAID led a global effort to build resilience among the people and governments of the Horn of Africa.

“We knew then that climate change was causing ever faster cycles of devastating drought, meaning families and communities have little time to recover before being slammed again,” said Nancy Lindborg, who served as the assistant administrator for the Bureau for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance at USAID and now is president of the United States Institute of Peace.

“With this latest, even more terrible drought hitting Ethiopia just five years later, the need to build resilience is more urgent than ever,” Lindborg said. “Without those efforts already made, the toll in Ethiopia would easily be much greater.”

CORRECTION: This story has been updated to reflect Nancy Lindborg’s correct role at USAID.