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 Monday, 11 November, 2002, 11:56 GMT
Q&A: Why is Ethiopia facing another famine?
Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi says that his country is facing a famine worse than the one in 1984 which killed nearly one million people.

BBC News Online looks at why famine has struck again and what is being done to prevent a massive humanitarian disaster.
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Why is Ethiopia facing another famine?

Ethiopia suffers frequent and prolonged droughts and lacks the infrastructure to collect and save sufficient water during good rainy seasons to provide supplies when the rains fail.

Open in new window : Ethiopian food crisis
Voices of those struggling to avoid starvation

This year the short rains, which begin in February, and the long rains starting in June both failed to supply enough water to ensure a sufficient harvest.

Most years, Ethiopia has to depend on some level of food aid as it rarely grows enough to feed the whole population.

The danger of food shortages was highlighted by the Ethiopian Government's Disaster Prevention and Preparedness Commission early in the year and by the World Food Programme (WFP).

How many people are at risk?

The initial estimates were that 5.2 million people would need food aid but the extent of the drought and therefore of the food shortfall has meant that the numbers affected are rising.

The country's prime minister has said that six million people are in need of immediate aid and that number could rise to 15 million if international donors do not help Ethiopia.

The WFP representative in Ethiopia, Georgia Shaver, says that an immediate response is needed as food distribution is underway but stocks will only last until December unless more aid is provided quickly.

The prolonged drought, with little rain since October 2001, according to WFP, has also affected Eritrea, to the north, where the harvest this year will only meet 15% of the country's needs.

How does this compare with the famine of 1984?

The abiding image of the 1984 was of a vast, arid plain covered with the ragged shelters of hundreds of thousands of starving people. The BBC's Michael Buerk reported from the camps housing the famine victims as a scene of "biblical proportions".

In 1984, Ethiopia was at war with the forces fighting for independence for Eritrea and for the overthrow of the government of Mengistu Haile Mariam.

Years of war and a two year drought had led to a famine affecting millions, particularly those displaced by war or in war zones to which food aid could not be easily sent.

There were also accusations that the Ethiopian Government did not reveal the extent of the famine or ask for aid in time because many of the areas affected were in war zones or in territory under rebel control, thus the very high death rate and the slow official reaction to the tragedy.

Estimates put the number of people affected in 1984 at five to seven million but with a very high death rate because of the delayed response.

Now, the numbers affected are far higher with six million people already facing hunger and another nine million at risk.

But this time around there is no war and the government is acting and urging the international community to help.

The Ethiopian Government, the WFP and other agencies are already feeding hungry people but the repeated failure of the rains means that they are having to feed more people than originally expected.

What is being done to avert hunger?

An early warning network in Ethiopia, established by the United States, indicated in the opening months of the year that poor rains would mean hunger. Both rainy seasons failed, meaning that crops were far below the requirements of the population.

Appeals were launched but were overshadowed by the more immediate and, at the time, more widespread famine in southern Africa.

In July, food aid was being sent from abroad to feed 250,000 people facing immediate hunger.

By October, the WFP said that it had received 300,000 tonnes of food to send to Ethiopia and that it was feeding about three million people every month.

Those helped received basic food rations made up of cereals, while children under five, pregnant women and nursing mothers also receive supplementary rations of enriched foods.

The need now is for rapid food aid to prevent hunger and stem the increase in reported cases of severe malnutrition.

Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has told the BBC that the failure to send aid would lead to a crisis "too ghastly to contemplate".

He warned that developed countries should not be lulled into thinking that the drought was a manageable problem because there had not been pictures on television of skeletal figures.

Why hasn't something been done to prevent another famine?

Serious efforts have been made to prevent further famines.

The new early warning system, funded by the US, has enabled the country to be more alert to impending shortfalls.

There have also been efforts to improve rural transport and roads to link rural communities with the main road systems to improve delivery of food in times of shortage.

In areas of northern Ethiopia, around Axum, projects to conserve soil, prevent over-grazing by livestock and to make better use of available water have been successful in increasing food production and making it more resistant to poor rainfall.

Opponents of the government and exile groups have accused the government of corruption and diverting aid to other purposes, notably the build up of the armed forces during and since the border war with Eritrea.

The Ethiopian Ambassador in London told the BBC that this was not the case and that all the relief aid going to Ethiopia is monitored carefully by Western aid organisations. But the feeling remains in the developed world that corruption or inefficiency have been contributory factors in turning the drought into a famine.

But overall, Ethiopia has not been able to overcome the major problem of erratic rains and the effect this has on national food production.

Food self-sufficiency is still an aim rather than a reality in most growing seasons.

Ethiopia did have early warning of the drought and sought aid but a combination of the southern African drought and the poor rains in the last couple of months has meant that the situation has worsened and more aid is still needed.

Key stories

Horn of Africa

Southern Africa

West Africa

Ways to help



See also:

05 Nov 02 | Africa
01 Oct 02 | Africa
06 Aug 02 | Africa
26 Jul 02 | Africa
02 Jul 02 | Africa
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