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    New Famine Could Loom in Ethiopia

    By Jennifer Parmelee
    Special to The Washington Post
    Thursday, March 31, 1994; Page A28

    ADDIS ABABA, ETHIOPIA -- Ten years after a devastating famine shocked the world with images of skeletal people hovering near death, Ethiopia is confronting the first casualties of a severe new drought that many fear could assume catastrophic proportions.

    The government's Relief and Rehabilitation Commission said this week that 74 people died in February, primarily of starvation, in two regions of the southwest particularly hard hit by drought. In some areas, officials said, one-quarter of the children are severely malnourished. In addition, health authorities reported that dozens of Ethiopians have died from cholera, a water-borne disease that spreads rapidly when water supplies are low and thus more easily contaminated.

    Hope for averting a crisis in Ethiopia rests on the waning prospect that this season's short rains will fall generously. One month into that season, however, the skies remain largely barren and newly planted fields dry and dusty.

    The Relief and Rehabilitation Commission issued an urgent appeal last week for more than a million metric tons of emergency food aid. It warned that food stocks are "dangerously low" -- 92,000 metric tons, enough to feed the population for two months -- and that expected food shipments are not arriving fast enough for about 4.4 million Ethiopians who risk starvation.

    International aid workers generally concur with the Ethiopian government's assessment of a crisis in the making. "If the rains fail again, and if the {international} response is not adequate, we are going to have a major problem on our hands," said Margaret Bonner, head of the U.S. Agency for International Development (AID) mission in Ethiopia.

    Ethiopia's predicament mirrors swiftly deteriorating agricultural conditions across the Horn of Africa. Poor or patchy rains aggravated by infestation of locusts and other pests have cut a broad swath of drought and crop failure across neighboring Eritrea, Sudan, Somalia and even Kenya, a country that is generally self-sufficient in food.

    According to a recent statement from George Moose, U.S. assistant secretary of state for Africa, at least 10 million people face the threat of starvation in East Africa.

    The widening belt of drought and hunger in the Horn has sharply increased competition among the neighbors for the finite international resources available to redress a seemingly infinite number of natural and man-made disasters in the world today.

    Aid agencies are forced into walking "the fine line between crying wolf and getting supplies and preventive infrastructure into place ... to deal with a potential emergency before the victims become starving children on television," Bonner said.

    Like all aid agencies, however, AID faces not only "donor fatigue" -- the weariness of affluent countries of having to deal with areas of chronic crises in the developing world -- it also must deal with the general tendency of the international community to allot more resources to disasters than to the development activities that would prevent or mitigate future catastrophes.

    AID, like other aid agencies operating in Ethiopia, has shifted a significant portion of resources to development activities since the end of 1991, after a 30-year civil war ceased here and dictator Mengistu Haile Mariam was overthrown. U.S. legislation had confined American official aid to emergency relief during the Mengistu regime, a restriction that was lifted with the advent of a new government that has publicly committed itself to establishing democracy.

    Yet the sobering fact remains that even in a "good year," when bountiful rains produce a bumper crop, Ethiopia still needs close to 1 million tons of donated food to cover its "structural food deficit," an amount only a little less than what was required during the great famine of 1984-85 that killed up to 1 million Ethiopians.

    The critical variable is population growth: Ethiopia is simply unable to feed its mushrooming populace, now put at 53 million and growing at well over 3 percent a year.

    Although Ethiopia has not yet fallen into the category of "full-blown emergency" as did neighboring Somalia in 1992, AID has declared it a "state of disaster," an official classification under which the agency hopes more emergency aid will flow to Ethiopia.

    Robert Roche, director of Catholic Relief Services in Ethiopia, said his field workers already have reported starvation deaths, as well as the first migrations and sales of livestock to offset crop failure. In the eastern province of Harerge, for example, the men of rural families have left for town in search of food, leaving women and children behind.

    "That's what happened before the big 1984-5 famine. The men left their families. And when they returned without food, that's when the first big desperate migrations began," he said, recalling his experience in Ethiopia a decade ago.

    AID also has declared a "state of disaster" in neighboring Eritrea, where crop failure is estimated at 80 percent. As in Ethiopia, there is scant food "in the pipeline" and fears of a catastrophe run high. Without a dramatic turnaround in food supplies, two-thirds of Eritrea's 2.3 million people will face severe food shortages, aid agencies say.

    In southern Sudan, meanwhile, the United Nations estimates that at least 2 million people require emergency food assistance because of drought as well as the devastating disruptions and destruction of a long civil conflict. Millions of Sudanese have fled their homes before the merciless assault of the war between the mostly Muslim, Arab north and the principally black African, animist and Christian south.

    In Somalia, escalating lawlessness in the wake of departing Western peacekeeping troops has stirred the specter of a return to the anarchy that spawned the terrible famine of 1992. At the famine's height, about 300 Somalis, mostly women and children, died from hunger every day.

    Generally robust Kenya has been hit by poor rainfall as well as political and economic upheaval, resulting in an expected shortfall of 1.4 million tons of grain over the coming year, according to the U.N. World Food Program. Reasonably prosperous compared with other Horn countries, Kenya can meet much of the food deficit through commercial imports. Nevertheless, the U.N. agency estimated that close to 1 million Kenyans affected by drought and other socioeconomic problems will need emergency assistance in 1994.


    © Copyright 1994 The Washington Post Company

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