Fighting famine in Ethiopia |

Fighting famine in Ethiopia

AWASA, Ethiopia ” Both of Alta Marso’s parents died from disease two years ago, so when the crops withered in this year’s drought and her little sister Tirfa began wasting away from malnutrition, it was up to her to make the 12-mile journey to an emergency feeding center.

At 12 years old, Alta is still a child herself. All she can do is wring her hands and watch when her sister struggles to her feet then collapses back onto the sleeping mat.

Dr. Amanuel Addisu from Save the Children approaches, checks Tirfa’s heart rate, then helps her back to her feet. She is unsteady and holds onto his hand while she takes a few tentative steps. He tells Alta that she got her little sister to the therapeutic center in time. It will take several weeks, he says, but she will recover.

Tirfa is one of the lucky ones. At least 60,000 of Ethiopia’s children have already died this year from a famine that humanitarian relief experts are calling one of the most severe and widespread in the nation’s history. According to the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), about 13 million people are in danger of starving and will need food aid for the remainder of 2003 and into 2004.

In the drought-prone eastern part of the country, the early signs of trouble were recognized in time, prompting an international appeal for assistance last year and again this year. But when famine took hold in the south, an area of rich land considered Ethiopia’s breadbasket, it caught the government and aid agencies by surprise.

“It is strange because everything looks green, it looks fertile, but the plants were damaged by erratic rainfall and now the crops are not producing much food,” says Yves Guinand, deputy director of the United Nations Emergencies Unit for Ethiopia.

So thousands of mothers and fathers, and even siblings like Alta, are setting out from remote villages, carrying starving children in search of one of the 26 therapeutic feeding centers operating throughout southern Ethiopia. In the Morocho center, Alta and her sister Tirfa are among 101 children being nursed back to health by the Save the Children staff.

There is enough food and funding to support opening more feeding centers, but there is a shortage of qualified organizations to set up and manage them, and not enough doctors to provide treatment.

Also, a perfect storm is brewing for a major malaria epidemic, which is compounding the health crisis, particularly in the south. Climatic conditions combined with large mosquito populations and a people weakened by malnutrition have put 15 million at risk of contracting the disease in the next four months, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). UNICEF and WHO have issued an urgent appeal for $5.8 million to help avoid a major epidemic.

Once a famine takes root, disease often kills more people than starvation. WHO estimates that malaria kills an African child every 30 seconds. Malaria is a threat, especially for younger children whose immune systems are compromised by chronic food shortages and malnutrition.

Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi says time is running out. He believes there is a window of opportunity right now to break the cycle of famine, disease, malnutrition and death, but that it will only remain open for the next five years.

“In five years time we have to have a large measure of food security in the country,” Zenawi says. “We have to be able to feed ourselves by then or no amount of food aid or international assistance is going to be able to save the people of Ethiopia.”

The roots of famine

A series of droughts in 1999, 2000, 2002 and 2003 destroyed crops, killed off livestock, and left the population weak both physically and financially.

Ironically, an excellent harvest in 2001 also contributed to the problem. Prices plunged below the cost of production for many farmers when the abundance of food hit the market. Wary of losing more money in 2002, farmers planted fewer crops and used cheaper seed and less fertilizer. Then when the rains did not come and the crops died in the fields, nearly a quarter of the nation went hungry.

The densely populated regions in the south are particularly hard hit. When one harvest fails here, the people immediately face food shortages. Corn is their staple, along with some sweet potatoes and a variety of vegetables, which are difficult to store for more than a few weeks at a time. When the corn crop fails people are forced to live off a drought-resistant plant called false banana, which fills the stomach but has little nutritional value.

But the cause of famine in Ethiopia is more complex than a simple lack of rain. A confluence of problems, including chronic poverty, a lack of basic health care and education, and a shortage of clean water, all fuel the cycle of famine. Additionally, Ethiopia’s population is growing at 2.8 percent per year, adding an additional 1.8 million people annually ” and agricultural production cannot keep pace.

Hope for the future

In the desert landscape of northeastern Ethiopia, convoys of trucks loaded with heavy sacks of food aid labeled U.S.A. rumble along a rugged dirt road that leads from Djibouti. In Byodidley, a small village just off the road, a man approaches and identifies himself as the local chairman.

“When you go back to your country, please tell them thank you for the food assistance,” he says. “Our children were starving and we were living like animals. Please tell your people that the food is getting through and it is saving our lives and we thank you!”

Government officials and relief experts agree that food aid is an important tool, but that it does not address the root causes of suffering in Ethiopia. Today, the country receives more emergency relief assistance per capita than any other country in the developing world, but also receives the least development assistance per capita.

An outpouring of humanitarian aid from the international community, led by $525 million in food from the United States, has kept the death toll from rising into the hundreds of thousands initially feared, but appeals for money to address the underlying causes of famine continue to come up short.

A joint Ethiopian/United Nations appeal issued in March prompted donations of nearly 600,000 tons of food, but funding for water development and sanitation programs are currently at only 30 percent of the target. Funding for HIV/AIDS programs, basic education, and programs for women and children lag even further behind at 18 percent.

Chronic shortfalls for development efforts frustrate aid workers, who say periods of drought are part of life in Ethiopia, but that the recurring humanitarian crisis is unnecessary and avoidable.

“The cycle of malnutrition, famine and death will go on and on unless we invest in developing water and sanitation, health care and agriculture,” says Husain Saiyed, emergency program coordinator for Save the Children, Ethiopia. “If this had been done in 1984, maybe we wouldn’t be here today.”

But the tide is turning toward a focus on development, both within the government and aid agencies. Ethiopia recently announced an ambitious plan to address food insecurity in the coming years, one that involves moving away from the current system of free food for the hungry, to a work-for-food program and eventually a work-for-money system.

“Obviously the people have to be fed to be able to work,” Prime Minister Zenawi says. “But all those who are able to work should work, and they should not get free handouts. Free handouts create a perverse dependency. People do not want to be beggars. They want to work and earn money.”

The plan involves paying the able-bodied to provide the labor for water development, road maintenance and basic infrastructure projects. Only the sick and elderly would receive free assistance.

Zenawi does not offer a timetable for transforming the system and admits he faces an uphill battle in convincing large donor nations like the United States to shift from sending politically popular food aid to cash for long-term development.

When USAID Administrator Andrew Natsios toured famine-stricken portions of southern Ethiopia Nov. 1, he announced a $1 million pilot program to provide small grants of about $56 each to the country’s most vulnerable families. He also cautioned that the large amount of food aid from the United States might not continue at current levels.

“The United States is not likely to be able to do this again. A million tons of food is massively more than we have ever done in a single country,” he said.

Natsios said the U.S. government understands that development assistance is critical and pointed to President Bush’s proposed $100 million famine prevention fund. If Congress supports the program, a large portion of the fund would go to Ethiopia.

Later in the day at the Morocho feeding center, a handful of smiling children line up to receive a measles vaccination, one of the final steps before leaving.

“This is a good day,” Dr. Addisu says. “Seven children are strong enough to go home today.” When asked how many new patients he expects tomorrow, he answers, “Maybe zero, maybe 20. God only knows.”

To learn more about Save The Children’s work in Ethiopia or to make a contribution, go to For a list of aid agencies working in Ethiopia, go to

Jim Chesnutt is the president and founder of News Corps International, an independent news service covering humanitarian crises wherever they occur.

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