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Friday, 1 November, 2002, 19:51 GMT
Getting food to hungry Ethiopians
As the scorching sun beats down on the quay of the Port of Djibouti, hundreds of people move into action to unload the valued cargo on board the Liberty Glory.
Ethiopia is facing a humanitarian crisis on a massive scale, with up to 14 million people at risk at the beginning of next year.
The United Nations Food Programme (WFP) estimates that up to two million metric tonnes of food is required for 2003 to help those hit by the drought.
Response to international appeals for food aid has been slow, and this consignment of 119,000 metric tonnes of wheat from the US Government, which arrived on three different ships, is hugely welcomed by aid agencies.
However, even with the arrival of aid, the logistical challenges involved in getting it to Ethiopia's millions are huge.
Challenges at sea
"Receiving the aid is one thing, but getting it to the people is another issue altogether. Ethiopia is landlocked and relies on Djibouti Port for all its food aid imports," says Wagdi Othman, WFP spokesman in Ethiopia.
In the past week, the Red Sea port has witnessed a mass operation to unload the aid and deliver it to some of the most remote areas of Ethiopia, where millions of people wait helplessly for food.
Giant cranes lift the wheat from the ship into huge bagging machines, where the cereal is bagged and placed on conveyer belts leading to queuing trucks.
The Liberty Glory's Captain, Mike Russell, says transporting food aid has its fair share of challenges.
"It took us 32 days at sea to bring the wheat from Washington to Djibouti. Sometimes the seas are difficult and we often endure treacherous weather conditions which can delay us," says Captain Russell.
"We are even exposed to piracy in the waters around Singapore, where small local vessels try to board ships and raid the captain's safe.
"However, the main issue is to keep the food aid dry and in good condition. If it's wet, then it is no use to anyone," he says.
Quality control is essential to ensure that the food is in good condition.
Once quality checks are passed, baggers and loaders waste no time in unloading the cargo.
"We work 24 hours a day as we realise the food has to get to empty stomachs as quickly as possible. We have about 500 people working on the discharging of aid cargo every day," says Ali Hettam, managing director of Comad, the company which handles the cargo.
Sceptics however are concerned that the Port of Djibouti cannot handle the amount of aid required for 2003 - they say other ports should be considered for the import of Ethiopia's food.
But port operations manager Iiyas Moussa Dawaleh disagrees.
"Djibouti is the natural gateway for Ethiopia... we have learnt much from the emergency aid operation in 2000 when 10 million Ethiopians needed food assistance," he says.
"Since then, we have invested $15m in the port and we can cope with the emergency situation that Ethiopia faces," he adds.
Hundreds of cargo trucks line up on standby to transport the wheat across the border and deliver it to distribution warehouses all over Ethiopia.
But the truck drivers also face problems on the road.
"The 220 km road from the port to the Ethiopian border is dilapidated and full of pot holes. It slows down the whole process significantly," says one driver.
Security also appears to be a problem. Ethiopian drivers say that some Djiboutians are unhappy that only Ethiopian transport companies are delivering aid.
"Sometimes people throw stones at our windshields and jump on our trucks and steal bags of food aid," said another driver.
After crossing into Ethiopia, the drivers continue to take risks.
Seasonal fighting between Afar and Issa ethnic groups is rampant in April and May, and often drivers have to be vigilant if they stumble across the armed fighting between the groups.
Their final destinations are often far and remote and, with poor roads and infrastructure, food can take another week before it arrives and can be distributed.
Crisis in the making
Most of the food is destined for Ethiopia's drought-affected populations, with a small proportion making its way to some 75,000 people displaced from the war with Eritrea, which ended in December 2000.
But much more is required.
Wilted sorghum and dried maize stalks continue to haunt the fields of West Hararghe in eastern Ethiopia - one of the most severely affected areas.
The populations affected say they have resorted to eating roots and wild berries from the forests in order to survive.
Livestock are dying at a rapid rate in the lowland nomadic areas such as Afar and Somali regions, where breeding cattle is the main source of income.
Preliminary nutritional assessments in areas such as West Hararghe indicate that more than 15% of children under the age of five are suffering from acute malnutrition.
"At this moment, we have no food to feed people in December," says WFP's Wagdi Othman.
"We appreciate everything that the donors are doing, but we need so much more. There is a humanitarian crisis in the making with 10-14 million people at risk. We have to prevent the crisis before it happens," he warns.
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