The Ethiopian government, troubled by rebellions in the north and south, publicly announced yesterday that it is facing yet another crisis - up to a million people threatened with death from starvation.
A broadcast by the Ethiopian state radio said between 600,000 and 1 million people were starving in the northeastern province of Wollo.
That would make the famine - caused by drought, an agricultural disease called ergot and swarms of locusts - potentially as serious as the 1973-74 famine that claimed up to 200,000 lives, mainly in the same area. Efforts by the government of Emperor Haile Selassie to cover up the drought and to ignore its effects led to its ouster through a military coup.
To make the current situation even worse, Addis Ababa radio said guerrillas of the Ethiopian Democratic Union, which seeks a return of the monarchy, have been attacking government installations in the province. Any widening of warfare in the already embattled country would cause problems for the government's famine relief efforts.
Yesterday's broadcast was the first government acknowledgement that the guerrillas were operating in that part of Ethiopia and indicated that the Marxist military government's problems with the rightists were escalating.
Previously, the guerrillas had confined their activities to the area around Gondar in northwestern Ethiopia.
There have been limited reports of drought difficulties in Wollo since last fall but yesterday's radio announcement was the first government admission of such a widespread problem.
The radio said most famine casualties so far were the result of starving farmers eating "poisonous herbs" and grain tainted by ergot, a fungus which can cause gangrene, mental distrubances and convulsions.
Forty-seven persons have died, 45 have been hospitalized and between 140 and 200 have been crippled from eating the poisonous food, according to the radio.
The small number of deaths to date, however, could be misleading since communications and transportation in the province about the size of Ohio are poor.
Wollo is astride the main highway north from the capital of Addis Ababa to Asmara, the capital of Eitrea where the Ethiopians are trying to put down a civil war with the assistance of the Soviet Union and Cuba. In the near north is Tigre Province, site of another incipient rebellion. To the south is the Ogaden where Ethiopia earlier this year drove out Somali forces, also with the aid of the Soviets and Cubans.
The continuous warfare in Ethiopia over the last few years has led to thousands of peasant being conscripted, causing a reduction in agricultural output and difficulties in food distribution.
The recurrence of the drought, ironically, coincides with the return of the phenomenon in the Sahel countries of West Africa where tens of thousands died in the early 1970s.
A State Department official said the United States, which has had strained relations with Addis Ababa since it turned to the Soviets and Cubans, has provided $2 million for drought relief aid, mainly trucks, through the United Nations. Sweden has been the largest donor giving $3.4 million in a program that has received about $9 million in aid or pledges. More than 250,000 tons of grain are to be imported this year.
The United States has also given Ethiopia $125,000 in bilateral assistance to survey the area and to provide public health specialists to deal with the problems caused by ergot.
Ergot is a common fungus which ingested by humans in large quantities can result in constriction of the blood vessels. In the Middle Ages it was thought to cause St. Elmo's Fire, in which victims were subject to screaming fits of hysteria.
Addis Ababa Radio said the government has begun an emergency airlift of food, clothing and medical supplies. Three airstrips are being built and efforts are being undertaken to establish permanent settlements to aid in food distribution, according to the radio.
The Associated Press quoted Princeton Lyman, director of the U.S. aid office in Ethiopia, as saying he was impressed by government relief efforts.
"The government has stockpiled grains in the towns and thousands of people are walking for as much as two days to reach food supplies," he said."In one town in three hours I watched 2,000 people come in to get supplies."
He added that there are reports that the drought and fungus disease may have spread north in Tigre Province.