Ethiopians Wait for Aid, Government Downplays Drought – By Jason Mclure(Bloomberg)

July 14th, 2008 Print Print Email Email

Nurita Kadir huddles with dozens of women and babies in a fly-infested white tent in the southern Ethiopian town of Senbete and waits for a meal for her starving five-month old child.

Kadir, clad in a black headscarf, is among as many as 4.6 million people the World Health Organization estimates have been left hungry after spring rains failed. The drought is draining grain stores in villages across a third of the country. She’s depending on foreign aid as criticism mounts that the government isn’t doing enough to tackle the crisis. (more…)

Nurita Kadir huddles with dozens of women and babies in a fly-infested white tent in the southern Ethiopian town of Senbete and waits for a meal for her starving five-month old child.

Kadir, clad in a black headscarf, is among as many as 4.6 million people the World Health Organization estimates have been left hungry after spring rains failed. The drought is draining grain stores in villages across a third of the country. She’s depending on foreign aid as criticism mounts that the government isn’t doing enough to tackle the crisis.
“The rains didn’t come,” Kadir, 36, said in a June 11 interview, as her child lay on a brown blanket beside her. “I had nothing to eat so the milk stopped.”

While people like Kadir are getting help, the number in need of food is growing, the Geneva-based WHO says. Aid has been hindered by the government’s attempts to downplay the crisis as a famine in the mid-1980s, the worst on record, still sullies the country’s image today, according to Gus Selassie, an Africa analyst at London-based political risk consultancy, Global Insight.

The famine two decades ago caused a million deaths, sparking a global charity effort led by Bob Geldof’s “Do They Know it’s Christmas,” hit song and the Live Aid concerts.

“The issue has been a source of friction between the government and the aid community,” Selassie said. “They feel the issue has been detracting from their economic success. They are trying to downplay it.”

Estimates Dismissed

Estimates in May by the United Nations Children’s Fund, or Unicef, that 6 million children need food aid have been dismissed by Ethiopia’s health ministry. With 78 million people, Ethiopia is the second-most populous country in sub-Saharan Africa after Nigeria.

The government has guaranteed electricity to export businesses such as flower farms. At the same time, power outages at factories that produce children’s porridge have reduced their output in recent months by as much as 50 percent, according to the United Nations’ World Food Programme’s Country Director, Mohammed Diab.

“We can’t forget about other activities” such as flower farms, Simon Mechale, the director of Ethiopia’s Disaster Prevention and Preparedness Agency, said in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital. “I don’t think we should compare this to 1984-1985.”

The IMF in April forecast economic growth of 8.4 percent this year. Even so, surging food prices pushed the annual inflation rate to 39.1 percent in May, the latest data available, according to the national statistics agency.

Fighting Rebels

From January to June the WFP said it distributed more than 45,000 metric tons of food to 2.6 million people. Still, in Ethiopia’s Somali region, where the military is fighting against ethnic Somali rebels, less than a third of the 9,600 tons of food allocated by the UN for relief has actually been distributed, the organization says.

No official statistics on the number of deaths caused by the famine have been released by the government.

“We don’t have the right figure now on deaths,” Tewordos Adhanom, the country’s health minister, said at a June 3 press conference in Addis Ababa. “We don’t need to beat the drum of hunger for Ethiopia every year. Ok, there is a drought in some parts, but we shouldn’t exaggerate.”

The government in May announced plans to buy 150,000 tons of wheat from South Africa. No wheat has left South Africa for the east African country since then, according to the Web Site of the South African Grain Information Service. The Addis Fortune newspaper today reported that the government will also buy 30,000 tons of corn from South Africa.

Food Shortages

“Currently 4.6 million people are affected by food and water shortages,” the WHO said in a July 11 statement. “Food insecurity is increasing.”

Government grain stocks are now below 100,000 tons, less than a quarter of their normal level, the WFP’s Diab said. About 391,000 tons of grain is needed by November, he added.

“It’s desperate,” Bjorn Ljungqvist, country director for Unicef, said in an interview in Addis Ababa. At risk are “50,000 to 100,000 kids over the next four months. If these kids don’t get support, between 25 percent and 50 percent will die.”

This year’s drought in February and March, which cut some harvests by 95 percent, came after a poor harvest in the country’s autumn season. Farmers in the area often feed families of eight from half hectare (1.24 acre) plots and reap two harvests a year, according to Kadir.

Rains Have Fallen

While rains have now fallen across fields that were planted in late May the next crop won’t be ready for at least three months, aid workers including Ljungvist say.

“We have lost all hope,” Larago Barisa, a farmer in the village of Lencho, south of Senbete, said. “In the surrounding areas you see green plants you wouldn’t think there is hunger, but when you step into the houses you will find nothing.”

The government is sensitive to criticism because the 1980s famine occurred under the rule of the Derg, the military regime that ruled between 1974 and 1987.

A comparison with the 1980s famine is to say the current government is “not better than the Derg,” Ljungqvist said. “That’s why this is so sensitive. As long as they agree there are a significant number of lives at risk I am not going to argue that they are wrong and we are right.”

Kadir has little interest in the squabbling. Her family sold four of their eight cows to raise money for food while the others died.

“We’re done,” she says.

To contact the reporter on this story: Jason McLure in Addis Ababa via Johannesburg at pmrichardson@bloomberg.net

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