The yard of the relief center was full of hundreds of ragged peasants squatting on the ground, milling about or scooping grain from a big pile of surg.
It might well have been a scene out of the grim past - the famine of 1973 when 100,000 peasants died in northern Ethiopia, many of them here in Wollo Province, the center of the whole drama.
The early signs of trouble are in fact, disturbing similar to those in the Wollo famine of 1973. Withered stalks of corn and sorghum not the surrounding fields, the grain has doubled only two months after the main harvest, peasants are drifting into Kobbo in search of jobs and the fear of renewed famine is sweeping the 120,000 people living in the surrounding district.
The peasants here still harbor vivid memories of the last famine.
"We lost 1,400 people in our area," said one village leader" not counting those left out on the fields and eaten by hyenas."
Despite the similarities, a repeat of the earlier Wollo diaster is not likely in the view of most Ethiopian and foreign relief experts.
"The situation will not reach the disastrous proportions of the famine of 1973," says a report written this week by one church group. I cited among other things the new network of side roads reaching up toward the Ethiopia's Relief and Rehabilitation Commission which already has gone into action.
Still, the return of drought to Wollo and neighboring Tigra' province is the talk of the capital, and foreign and Ethiopian relief officials are meticulously assessing the situation, with the specter of the 1973 famine and its political ramifications still fixed in every one's mind.
Former Emperor Haile Selassie was castigated by the world for his indifference to that famine and both U.N. agencies and the U.S. government were sharply criticized for the first remaining silent and then reacting slowly in deference to the late emperor.
The Wollo cover-up, which helped to topple Haile Selassie in September 1974, became a national and international scandal that no one here has forgotten.
Since mid-December, the Ethiopian Relief and Rehabilitation Commission has been ringing its alarm loudly, warning that as many as 700,000 people in Wollo and tigrai provinces face famine because of local quirks in the weather system and the ravages of pests on meager crops.
At the same time, the Ministry of Agriculture has said that Ethiopia faces an overall grain deficit of up to 400,000 tons this year due to a wide variety of problems ranging from scattered pockets of crop failure to difficulties stemming from land reform.
At first, foreign relief agencies and donor governments listened to the commission's warnings with some skepticism. Ever since the 1973 disaster, Ethiopia has cried out about another potential one in one corner of the country or another in an apparent effort to get as much free foreign assistance as possible. In fact, a kind of "drought ritual" takes place each year, with the donors and the government squabbling about the seriousness of the situation and the country's need for foreign aid.
This year for a change, both sides seem to agree that the drought in parts of Wollo and Tigre is potentially serious and that steps must be taken now to prevent the problem from reaching crisis proportions. To the approval of foreign donors, Ethiopia has moved swiftly on its own to cope with the potential famine without waiting for outside assistance.
The general assessment that another Wollo disaster is improbable stems from a number of changes since 1973. First, the government has set up a nationwide "early warning system" that reported on the developing crisis here and in Tigre within a month of the latest crop failure.
Within two months of the first reports, the relief commission began sending supplies to the five affected districts in northern Wollo and setting up distribution centers like the one that opened here in Kobbo on Saturday. About 6,000 tons of grain have gone, or are on their way, to various strategic points in the two provinces, according to Ethiopian relief officials.
The local reporting system also seems to have vastly improved, thanks to the newly established "peasant associations" of about 24 million is now grouped. For example, each of the 72 associaions in the Kobbo district has already drawn up a list of those needing aid immediately, those who can hold out until March and those who can probably get through without assistance until the next harvest in November.
Another big difference from the 1973 Wollo famine is the construction in the past three years of the about 250 miles of dirt side roads into the remote, mountains interior of the province - the result mostly of private and government aid from West Germany, Britain. The Netherlands and China among others.
There is also a new approach to drought relief assistance in Wollo, with both donors and Ethiopian relief officials discussing food-for-work programs that will involve road building, reforestation and village development projects.
The main concerns are to keep peasants from migrating to the towns in hunger and despair to avoid having to open relief shelters that breed disease and to prevent the development of a beggar mentality resulting from free handouts.
More difficult is the long-term problem of this drought-prone province, where 2.5 million peasants live at a subsistence level in small villages of stick-and-mud huts scattered across badly eroded though majestic mountain ranges and in overcrowded valleys.
There is talk among local officials of creating state farms, cottage industries and resettlement plans to absorb the surplus population. So far, the only major long-term project to emerge from the 1973 Wollo disaster is a $9.5 million West German plan to increase grain production.
Ethiopian relief officials in the provincial capital of Dessie, 115 miles south of here, estimate that they may have to feed 290,000 people just in the scattered pockets of drought they have already discovered across northern Wollo Province. For the 10 month period until the next harvest, this will mean about 30,000 tons of grain needed for this province alone, with each person getting only 14 ounces daily.
Recently, Ethiopia's relief commissioner. Shimelis Adugna put Ethiopia's relief needs this year at 70,000 tons while also asking for another 60,000 tons to build up a standing reserve. Compared to his requests in the past few years, sometimes reaching 200,000 tons or more, these are regarded by foreign relief officials as unusally reasonable.
The Agriculture Ministry is already buying an unprecedented 100,000 tons of grain abroad.The relief commission is assured of another 23,000 tons from Europe and 25,000 tons from the United States.
The total, about 150,000 tons, is as much as Ethiopia's two main Red Sea ports of Assab and Djiboutc can handle, according to most foreign donor estimates. The Ethiopians disagree and are pressing to obtain more by purchase and donations, apparently a total of 230,000 tons.
Compared to previous years, however, the feud between the Ethiopians and foreign donors is limited and, for once, there is a remarkable degree of cooperation in trying to head off another Wollo disaster.