The United States is sending an additional 105,000 tons of emergency relief food to Ethiopia to help it cope with the latest famine threatening the lives of at least 5 million people there, according to U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator M. Alan Woods.
Woods, who has just returned from Ethiopia, last week predicted a repeat of the 1984-85 famine in which about 1 million died. But he said there is still a "substantial opportunity" to avoid such disaster "if all the cards fall right."
"It's just a matter of luck," he said at a news conference.
Bad luck has already struck. A Kuwaiti ship carrying 20,000 metric tons of U.S.-supplied grain for Ethiopia sank 700 miles off the coast of Florida Thursday after it and a Panamanian ship collided. The grain was enough to sustain 250,000 for six months, Woods said.
Donors have made commitments to supply 550,000 tons of relief food to Ethiopia, including 247,000 tons pledged by the United States. The total is about half of what the Ethiopian government estimates will be needed next year.
The Ethiopian government and donors have avoided setting up permanent feeding camps for tens of thousands of starving peasants, as happened during the 1984-85 famine, Woods said. Instead, the hungry receive food rations to last two weeks or a month from distribution centers and then return home.
Four C130 transports provided by European countries and three Antonov aircraft provided by the Soviet Union are flying food to the north-central province of Tigray.
Woods said donors, private voluntary organizations and the Ethiopian government are "far, far ahead" of where they were in December 1984 in establishing a famine-relief system. "It gives us a chance to save literally hundreds of thousands of lives," he said.
The AID administrator said the "open-road, own-risk policy" the United Nations and private outside groups were urging Ethiopia to accept in strife-torn areas is working in the northern province of Eritrea but not yet in neighboring Tigray.
Under this policy, U.N. and other foreign food convoys proceed on their own without any Ethiopian military escort down roads susceptible to attack by antigovernment guerrillas. The donors publicize their schedules so that both rebel groups and the government will let the convoys go through unimpeded.
On Oct. 23, rebels attached to the Eritrean People's Liberation Front ambushed a U.N. convoy and burned all its food supplies, panicking donors, who feared such attacks would cripple the transportation system in the most severely affected areas in northern Ethiopia.
Woods said there have been no other attacks on food convoys since Oct. 23, but that the roads are not open regularly in Tigray, where another rebel group is challenging the government and demanding an end to its resettlement program.
The AID administrator said the Ethiopian government, which was sharply criticized by outsiders for not giving high enough priority to famine relief in 1984-85, is "doing better" but still needs to give "yet higher priority" to thwarting the looming famine disaster. Its cooperation is "significantly higher," Woods said, and it has already sent north 100 of the 200 trucks needed locally to transport relief foods.