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Famine stalks Ethiopia

BY SUSAN KIM | Baltimore, MD | April 13, 2000

Severe food shortages brought on by drought could affect 13 million lives in the Horn of Africa. In Ethiopia -- and in its neighboring

countries of Kenya, Somalia, and Eritrea -- thousands are abandoning their homes and villages in search of food. Many are currently

surviving on grasses, leaves, moss, and roots.

In some villages, it is estimated that five or six children are dying each day, according to reports from Catholic Relief Services (CRS). Many

children are suffering from tuberculosis, dysentery, and fever. Hundreds have already died.

The government is asking donors for more than 800,000 tons of food to avert a full-scale famine. Relief officials say there is still a small

window of opportunity to avoid a catastrophic loss of life. But current food distribution efforts have been hampered by the ongoing war

between Ethiopia and Eritrea, since some of the most efficient distribution routes pass through war zones.

Action by Churches Together (ACT) has already issued appeals for the region, and is working through the Joint Relief Partnership (JRP), a

consortium of local churches and faith-based organizations, to distribute food in drought-affected areas.

The Church World Service Emergency Response Office issued an emergency appeal, which will support the ACT appeal, seeking $1 million

in denominational support for famine relief. "Ethiopia has been a simmering emergency that has now boiled over and will require quite

lengthy assistance, I believe," said spokesperson Donna Derr.

CRS is providing direct emergency food assistance for some 380,000 people in the region. "Our brothers and sisters in Ethiopia are

suffering from malnutrition and disease and we are working with our local partners to provide them with the most fundamental of human

needs -- food, water and shelter," said Ken Hackett, executive director. CRS has been working in Ethiopia since 1957. Like ACT, CRS is

coordinating its relief efforts through JRP.

Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA) is also supporting the ACT appeal for Ethiopia. PDA is working through its Ethiopian partner in

mission, the Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus (EECMY). The Lutheran World Federation is also supporting the ACT appeal.

The Christian Reformed World Relief Committee (CRWRC) is working through the Canadian Foodgrains Bank and Food for the Hungry

International to support a continuing food aid project. "Last year we sent 1,700 metric tons of wheat, and this year we'll be actively

responding as well," said CRWRC spokesperson Joan Cosby.

The United Methodist Committee on Relief, Adventist Development and Relief Agency, Action Against Hunger, CARE, Concern

Worldwide US, Ethiopian Community Development Council, Food for the Hungry, International Aid, Mercy Corps International,

Operation USA, Oxfam America, Save the Children, UNICEF, and World Relief are also actively responding.

The Virginia-based Foods Resource Bank (FRB), anticipating a food crisis in the region, sent a group of its members to Africa last year to

discuss and consider food security needs. During that time, FRB worked with farmers and agronomists to identify potential food resources,

as well as effective approaches to achieving long-term food security.

World Vision, which has been working in Ethiopia since 1971, has issued an appeal for relief aid. "The situation in some areas -- especially

those along the border with Somalia -- is dire," said Nigel Marsh, World Vision's regional spokesman who spent a week in Ethiopia. "Signs

of an emerging disaster -- such as children on the brink of death -- are evident in many areas."

The entire Horn of Africa region has a history of food shortage that has been exacerbated by on-and-off warfare since the mid-1970s. In

1984-85, a famine brought on by drought killed nearly one million people, provoking a worldwide outpouring of relief funds and food

supplies. Lesser-known famine also struck in 1972, 1974, and 1989.

The current famine condition began in 1998 when both short rains ("belg") and long rains ("meher") failed to provide sufficient saturation. A

successive lack of belg rains in 1999 prevented farmers from planting the staple crops of maize and sorghum, which account for 40 percent

of the total annual cereal production in Ethiopia. Substitute crops of teff and pulses were not successful due to failure of the meher rains.

The next planting season is in May and June.

More than 80 percent of the population depends on agriculture as a main source of livelihood. Within that agrarian society, the nomadic

lifestyle of the people who live in the region makes it difficult to achieve any measure of food security, report relief officials. According to

government figures, some 70 percent of the 3.5 million people in Ethiopia's Somali region are nomads. Most of them have not diversified

into farming.

Most families rely on livestock for food and income. But 90 percent of livestock in southeastern Ethiopia have died, according to the United

Nations' World Food Program. Families have also sold their cattle, seed, and tools to buy food and water. People are rapidly migrating to

feeding centers, sometimes walking for a week, or living on the outskirts of food centers in makeshift shelters of wood and sheeting.

Overwhelming local resources of both food and medicine, hungry people are overcrowding the centers, increasing the risk of disease.

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