Page last updated at 00:49 GMT, Friday, 6 June 2008 01:49 UK

Ethiopians drink from cup of sorrow

By Elizabeth Blunt
BBC News, Addis Ababa

By 0900, the children at Bisidimo Hospital, near Ethiopia's eastern town of Harar, are on their third feed of the day.

Young boy at Bisidimo hospital
The weakest children have red mugs, the stronger ones blue and green

Hospital staff have set up a table under the shade trees in the grounds.

On it are three plastic pails - one red, one green and one blue - and health workers are busy ladling out different kinds of formula milk into matching, colour-coded mugs.

The government has said that it is facing a "critical food shortage", after the failure of this year's early rains.

The Disaster Prevention and Preparedness Agency says 4.5 million people will need emergency food assistance, and 75,000 children are already severely, acutely malnourished.

As a man calls the children's names, their mothers come forward for a carefully measured ration.

Modern therapeutic feeding is a precise and scientific business.

One of the children at Bisidimo was still being fed through a tube because he was unable to drink, but all the others sat on their mothers' laps, clutching their mugs of milk.

The weakest children had red mugs, and their mothers were helping and encouraging them to sip.


The children with green and blue mugs were stronger, most of them clutching their mugs and drinking by themselves.

Families at Bisidimo hospital
Prices rises are so high, even if people can earn, their money buys very little

In cases of severe malnutrition, bodily systems go haywire, and the body starts to feed on itself.

Water seeps into the tissues and the child's legs and feet become swollen with fluid.

Once children are this sick, between a quarter and a half will die if they do not get treatment.

So, first the new arrivals have to be stabilised and then they can gradually be given richer mixtures as they regain their appetite.

The therapeutic feeding centre at Bisidimo is a permanent, specialist facility.

Deadly coincidence

Even in normal times, unfortunately, many Ethiopian children never really get enough to eat, and there always a few who end up clinically malnourished.

But where it would normally have a handful of patients, now this and other clinics like it are well over capacity and the number arriving is increasing every day.

Father and son at Bisidimo hospital
A lack of money has forced the World Food Programme to reduce support

These children are the victims of a deadly coincidence of factors.

Yes, there is a drought.

This year's short rains failed over most of the country and there is no crop now to tide farming families over until the main harvest in November.

But price rises are also a factor.

Even if people can earn a little cash, prices have risen so much that their money buys very little.

And just to make matters worse, a programme which screened mothers and small children and offered supplementary food to those who needed it has been drastically cut back in this area, because the World Food Programme was short of money.

Now Ethiopia is appealing for enough food to provide emergency rations for 4.5 million people this year. At the moment it says it has only a third of what it will need.

Unless enough food arrives to make some kind of general distribution, the children from Bisidimo will go back home to empty granaries and larders, and all the good work of the feeding centre staff will have been in vain.

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