Page last updated at 10:19 GMT, Friday, 13 June 2008 11:19 UK

Ethiopia: Your questions answered

A malnourished boy sits with his mother in a feeding center on June 8, 2008 in Shanto, Ethiopia.

Ethiopia is experiencing an extreme hunger crisis. The BBC's Gavin Hewitt has been reporting from the worst affected areas in the country.

The number of Ethiopians in need of emergency food aid in drought-affected regions has risen to 4.5m, a government body says.

The United Nations Children"s Fund, Unicef, said that 3.4m people were in need of emergency assistance in southern and central regions affected by one of the worst droughts in years.

The local people call it a "green drought", because the land is full of new shoots but there is no food. This happened because there was a shortage of rainfall last season and few crops were planted.

Gavin Hewitt answers questions from BBC website readers about the hunger crisis in Ethiopia.

Q: Now the rainy season is coming, the fact that children are hungry means that the farmers have few crops for the land they plough. What is going on now regarding the next harvest? Is the government distributing crops? How are foreign aid organisations responding to this? Will they provide enough for the survival of the children and also enough for the next harvest? Asmelash, Mumbai, India

Gavin Hewitt: The next harvest in south-west Ethiopia is due in October and November. Despite the lack of food, many people have been out planting maize, corn and other crops. They know their survival depends on it. The good news is that in the past 10 days, the rain has been falling. It may be that the people have a good harvest later in the year. The problem is how these rural areas survive until then. There is some government help like the distributing of high-nutrition biscuits. The aid agencies are aware of the scale of the problem. They say that 4.5 million people are in need of critical, urgent assistance. However a large-scale food distribution programme has not yet started.

Q: What is the government doing about this drought? Even about the most threatening inflation that the country is facing recently? Alinur, Dire Dawa, Ethiopia

GH: The Ethiopian government has taken some steps to deal with this food crisis. There are therapeutic treatment centres where what they call F 100 biscuits are handed out. They are made up of skimmed milk, sugar, cereal flour, vegetable oil and minerals and vitamins. They can keep children alive and we saw some being distributed. The problem is that probably tens of thousands of children under the age of 5 are severely malnourished. There is little prospect of them finding food in the villages. In the larger towns the price of basic grains has doubled. The price of teff, which is perhaps the most important grain in Ethiopia, has trebled. I think it is inevitable that the government will have to agree to a sizeable operation bringing in food from abroad.

Q: Are there any water collection facilities in Ethiopia? If not, why haven't any be built? Elisabeth, Salt Lake City, Utah, USA

GH: There are water collection facilities in Ethiopia and new reservoirs are being built. The country is in a much better position to deal with a drought compared to the terrible famine of 1984. However , particularly in the south-west, it is mostly subsistence farming. Most families have a plot half the size of a soccer pitch. What needs to happen is for villages to put in irrigation systems and water storage facilities. That would make a large difference but these communities cannot do that by themselves. They are very poor. And that is where some international aid can be channelled in the future.

Q: When will the BBC report on the real issues and reasons why the people of Ethiopia are starving? Why pretend that Ethiopia is not one of the top 10 countries that export food to the west? It was the same kind of misinformation they were spouting to the public during the famine of the 1980s when Ethiopia was exporting more food than what is was receiving in Aid. Winston, London, UK

GH: I am not certain whether it is true that Ethiopia is exporting grain to the West. Certainly the export of coffee is a key foreign exchange earner. The whole issue is worth exploring further. What is undeniable is that there has been a drought in some parts of the country and the crops failed. The aid agencies say that there is not enough food in the country to deal with the current crisis.

Q: The Ethiopian government says there is no food shortage in the villages of Ethiopia. Do you think they are lying? Adis, Addis Ababa

GH: The Ethiopian government has been keen to project itself as an African success story. It has a current growth rate of 10%. It is a different country from the one that experienced the terrible famine in 1984. The government has been keen to deny a famine exists today. They have criticised some foreign media for exaggerating the scale of the problem. They are right in saying there is no famine but it is also true that unless food aid arrives in the next few weeks then a lot of children will die. Over the next few weeks the government of Ethiopia will come under a lot of scrutiny in how it deals with this crisis and how it works with the international aid agencies.

Q: After reading this it really got me thinking - I always wanted to do something but I don't believe in donating money to people. I would love to know how can I help? Do you think having my own charity, going myself there with a group of doctors and people who want to help will work? We need to do something about this... they are kids! Julian, London, UK

GH: Yes you are right - they are "kids." The main problem is the under-5s. Some agencies say that 75,000 children are severely malnourished. Others say the figure is higher. There are two issues here: the immediate crisis and the long term. Over the next few weeks the international community will have to help these children. Some appeals have started and some well-known agencies are already raising money. In the long-term, these villages need to build irrigation channels and rain-storage facilities. They also need access to higher quality seeds. There may well be charities that are working long-term on projects like this. I think many people prefer to support projects that they can see working rather than hand over funds to governments.

Q: What is the government's response to the hunger crisis? What can we do to help? Mesfin, Mclean, Virginia, USA

GH: The Ethiopian government accepts there is a problem in certain areas. Local officials are running therapeutic feeding centres. However the government is keen to promote Ethiopia as a successful developing country. The next few weeks are critical. The aid agencies are pushing to get emergency food aid into these villages to fill the gap until the next crops are harvested. Many people are watching to see what the Ethiopian government's response will be. I think you will find that some recognisable charities have already launched appeals to help.

Q: Why does the BBC and the rest of world want to see us only at times that we are between life and death. Why not during the times when we try to be better off? Yonas, Dire Dawa, Ethiopia

GH: It is a reasonable question. Certainly Ethiopia has come a long way since the 1980s when the government covered up a widespread famine. Health care has improved. The economy is growing strongly and yet the country remains vulnerable to drought. I think when there is a humanitarian crisis, the world wants to know. Many people want to get involved when they see suffering. But I take your point that we should not only cover the bad news.


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