Ethiopians braced for new famine – By Mike Pflanz in Awassa

June 29th, 2008 Print Print Email Email

Last year, the rains were good. Teagistu Gansamo filled the fertile earth of her half-acre plot with maize and bean seeds and, for months afterwards, she and her five children ate well.

A year later, she was squatting on a grubby pink blanket outside a rural health centre deep in Ethiopia’s south, holding her listless infant son Harony tightly to her chest.

She walked eight miles through the heat of the day to bring Harony here to Boricha, 180 miles south of the capital Addis Ababa. (more…)

Last year, the rains were good. Teagistu Gansamo filled the fertile earth of her half-acre plot with maize and bean seeds and, for months afterwards, she and her five children ate well.

A year later, she was squatting on a grubby pink blanket outside a rural health centre deep in Ethiopia’s south, holding her listless infant son Harony tightly to her chest.

She walked eight miles through the heat of the day to bring Harony here to Boricha, 180 miles south of the capital Addis Ababa.

When nurses admitted him, into a ward crammed with 38 other severely malnourished babies, the boy with the narrow face and weak smile weighed less than a stone.

Harony, and the others whimpering and crying around him, is one of the 126,000 children that Ethiopia’s government and international aid agencies say are at immediate risk of starvation.

Across the country’s south and east this year’s early rains have failed, and the ghosts of the 1984 famine are haunting the land once again. More than 4.5 million people need emergency food in six of the country’s nine regions.

“I am praying to God, I am telling him I will ask no more from him but to keep my son alive,” said Mrs Gansamo, who guessed her age at 28.

“For three months, all we have eaten is the roots of plants. Even if the boy improves and I take him back to the village, there is no food there. I think he can fall sick again.”

This is not supposed to happen in Ethiopia any more.

Mindful of the disaster of 1984, when more than a million starved to death, and well aware of the erratic effects of global climate change on previously predictable weather patterns, the government has invested heavily in preparing for fresh crises.

But this year a “perfect storm” of factors, fed in large part by soaring world food and fuel prices, has pushed large parts of the country to the edge once again.

Although last year’s rains were good, the 13.2 million Ethiopians forced to depend on handouts during the last crisis in 2003, and the 10 million who needed aid in the emergency before that, in 2000, have barely had enough time to recover before this year’s rains failed.

The drought that hit this year has withered seeds in the ground. Families have sold what they could: a goat, if they owned one, farm tools if they had them, and used the money to buy food in the market.

But the prices are now beyond most people’s reach.

“I tried to bake smaller loaves, but still my prices are too high,” said Temesgen Mulugeta, a baker in Boricha.

The United Nations World Food Programme faces the same problem. The near-doubling of basic cereal prices has meant that its 2008 budget needs 60 per cent more money to pay for urgently needed food.

“There has been one shock after another,” said Bjorn Ljungqvist, head of the UN children’s charity UNICEF in Ethiopia.

“At this stage, it is not reaching a famine situation. But it is a serious but manageable crisis, provided that the resources needed to react to it are mobilised quickly.”

The government and aid agencies working here recently published a revised appeal for food and drought assistance. More than £210 million is needed immediately.

So far, they have less than a quarter of that, despite a commitment from Britain to give £10 million. The US has promised £35 million.

“In theory this could be the last food crisis that Ethiopia faces,” said Mr Ljungqvist. “As long as all of the government’s commendable plans are supported and implemented effectively and quickly.”

That optimism seems well placed driving along the dirt roads that wind through southern Ethiopia, where the last impression is one of a region facing famine.

Fields are ploughed, low stalks of green maize bob in the breeze and coffee bushes stand in lines next to the swaying leaves of false banana trees.

But this is a green desert, where farmers work their fields knowing that even if the next rains are plentiful, the food will not be ready for their children to eat until September.

The rains due to start now are forecast to be above average. But what appears to be good news could in fact exacerbate the current crisis.

Army worms, pests which feed on immature crops, flourish with heavy rain. Too much rain fall could also lead to flooding, destroying the promised crop and bringing illness.

For the mothers at Boricha help centre, all that is too far in the future. Today, all that matters is that finally their children are being helped.

“He was always crying for food,” said Fatuma Butemo, 31, her 18 month old son Masalu, swaddled in a green blanket in her lap.

“I just fed him leaves and roots to try to fill his stomach and stop his pain. I know it is not good for him but what else can I do? There is nothing else to put in his mouth.”

  1. Desta
    | #1

    This time Poverity and starvation is not limited to ethiopia and Ethiopians, but its becoming the world problem, and it requires world attention to solve it.

  2. aselefu
    | #2

    Are we to assume that Eritreans are eating three square meals, Somalis bursting with food? Beware, war mongerers and Ethio-haters because when ethiopia sneezes, you catch cold.
    Poverty and starvation is a serious matter. Unfortunatly some desperate losers are trying to politicize the issue as if their families are sleeping with full stomachs.
    How low can these pople sink?

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