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Saturday, 1 April, 2000, 17:19 GMT 18:19 UK
Why is famine back again?
Woman and children, photo courtesy of Rodney Rascona
Many people are too weak to seek relief
By News Online's Emma Batha

Fifteen years after a devastating famine in Ethiopia left nearly one million dead, hunger is once again stalking the land.

There have been reports of weakened children being eaten by hyenas and fields filled with dead cattle.



Eight million people are said to be at risk of starvation.

The looming disaster follows three years of poor rains and has been compounded by a two-year war with neighbouring Eritrea.

Oxfam's regional representative, Othman Mahmoud, said crop production had been decimated and 95% of livestock had been lost in Ogaden, in the south.



I cannot rule out war as a cause. But the main cause is lack of rains

Othman Mahmoud, Oxfam
''There are corpses everywhere. Some people have been slaughtering animals and drying them out to use as a last resort for survival.''

This is highly unusual as the herdsmen depend on their livestock for milk and income.

Climate

The drought is due to cooler sea temperatures in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, which have lowered rainfalls in the Horn of Africa region.


Child, photo courtesy of Rodney Rascona
Early rains have failed for four years
Ethiopia has two rainy seasons, a short season called belg beginning in February, and a long one in the summer.

But there has been a severe shortage of early rains for the past three years and this year they have not arrived at all.

The belg rains are vital, contributing to 50% of crop production in some parts of the country.

The long rains have also been arriving late which has wreaked further havoc with the food production cycle.

War

The latest disaster comes as Ethiopia continues to fight a border war with Eritrea.

Eritrea has accused its neighbour of spending money on maintaining the conflict rather than fighting the drought.

But Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi strongly denies this.


Ethiopia: 100 Years of Famines
2000: 8 million people at risk
1994: 100,000 die in famine
1984: 800,000 die
Between 1973 and 1974: More than 200,000 people die
1958: More than 100,000 die
Between 1916 and 1935, there are several small famines
1888-1892: Great Famine of the Horn
International aid organisations say funds have not been diverted, but they fear the war could hamper relief efforts.

They are worried that trucks needed to distribute food could be commandeered for military use, just as they were in the last famine when the country was embroiled in civil war.

There could also be difficulties getting aid into landlocked Ethiopia, because its two main supply ports, Assab and Massawa, are in Eritrea.

The Eritrean Government has promised to let aid through - but only if it does not benefit the Ethiopian army.



Ethiopia could grow a lot more food if the land was not so overworked

Paul Hetherington, Save the Children
Ethiopia is certainly more stable than in 1984, when the civil war prevented food reaching many of the starving.

But there are continuing problems with banditry, which could jeopardise food distribution.

Staff from aid agencies, including the World Food Programme, are reported to have been killed near Gode in Ogaden, one of the areas in most urgent need of aid.

Lessons

Both the current disaster and the 1984 famine were caused by failure of the early rains.

But this time there are even more people at risk because of population growth.


Child, photo courtesy of Rodney Rascona
Appeals for aid were made four months ago
As the population has increased, the land has been divided up into ever smaller parcels.

The soil has become more overworked, leading to weaker yields, creating more poverty.

Save the Children says the worst affected region at the moment is the south, but the potential disaster is far greater in the north-east because of the larger population.

Lessons

However, aid workers say important lessons have been learnt since the last famine.

A sophisticated early warning system has been set up to predict rainfalls and crop production so appeals for food aid can be made in good time.


Baby, photo courtesy of Rodney Rascona
Agencies are warning of a catastrophe
And, as a direct result of the 1984 drought, the government holds 350,000 metric tonnes of food in reserve so it can respond rapidly to any shortage.

However, these reserves have dropped to 50,000 tonnes, even though they are supposed to be replenished as soon as they are used.

Appeals were made for additional food aid as long ago as November. But the response has been poor.

The United Nations says this is partly because international donors are dealing with so many other world crises at the moment.

But Mr Mahmoud warned there would be a catastrophe if food did not arrive fast.

''They should have topped the food reserve up, but they didn't,'' he added. ''We're now ringing a very loud bell - we're shouting to bring food in.''

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See also:

31 Mar 00 | Africa
Horn famine relief effort
31 Mar 00 | Africa
Is aid really helping?
13 Sep 99 | Africa
World Bank aid blow for Horn
13 Jul 99 | Americas
New aid appeal for Ethiopia
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