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Wednesday, 24 May, 2000, 15:12 GMT 16:12 UK
War and drought in the Horn
People at feeding centre in Gode
Three years without rain has left 10m at risk
By Peter Biles in Addis Ababa

War and drought are the two words forever associated with the Horn of Africa.

And once again, the region has been thrown into turmoil by a full-scale conventional war being waged between Ethiopia and Eritrea.


Everything possible is already being done to help the people of Ethiopia, regardless of the war

The resumption of hostilities on 12 May came at a time when the Horn is in the grip of another drought after three successive years of poor rains and failed harvests.

In Ethiopia - the worst-affected country - around 10 million people are said to be at risk this year.

Quite rightly, the international community has been asking what impact the war is having on the efforts to feed the hungry in Ethiopia. How can Ethiopia afford to wage war when her people are said to be starving?

Little impact

The reality however, is that the conflict on Ethiopia's northern border is having almost no effect whatsoever on food distribution in the drought-stricken regions of the country.

Perhaps surprisingly, most international donors have not held back because of the war.

Indeed, some countries have shown a willingness to contribute aid to Ethiopia for the first time.

Ethio-ian soldiers
Resources are being swallowed up by the border war

In a BBC interview last week, the former US Assistant Secretary of State, Herman Cohen, said: "We never say 'No' to hunger".

After the appeals for humanitarian assistance earlier in the year, the aid pipeline to Ethiopia is now full and even in this month when the war re-started, the quantity of food coming into the port of Djibouti has increased from 4,000 to 5,000 tonnes a day.

In spite of the increased number of trucks being used to transport troops and equipment to the war-front, there are still sufficient vehicles to move relief food into the drought-affected parts of the country.

Food stocks are already being pre-positioned in the highland areas, such as Welo, in anticipation of the next rains due in July.


The conflict on Ethiopia's northern border is having almost no effect whatsoever on food distribution in the drought-stricken regions

This is to ensure that there is enough food in place, should areas become inaccessible once the rains start.

There have been distribution problems in the south-eastern Somali Region in the Ogaden but these are not the result of the conflict hundreds of kilometres to the north.

The Somali Region is remote and prone to insecurity. A little-known rebel group, the Ogaden National Liberation Front (ONLF) is active and there is general lawlessness and banditry.

Food aid cannot be transported without the use of Somali trucks and drivers.

After months of drought, the area around the town of Gode experienced heavy rain in early May, causing roads to be washed away.

Ethiopia relief truck
Relief aid is getting through

Trucks became marooned in the mud. "Now that it's drying out, food is getting into the Somali Region and although more will be required, the immediate needs are being met", says Roberta Rossi, spokeswoman for the UN World Food Programme.

Ethiopia's average food aid requirement over the last 15 years has been between 600,000 t and 700,000 t. This year, the government appealed for 800,000 t in assistance. In spite of the severe drought, it is only a relatively small increase.

The UN says it has no reports of any food aid going to the Ethiopian military.

However, critics have asked why Ethiopia has been spending vast sums of money on military hardware for its war against Eritrea and paying tens of thousands of soldiers a basic rate of 400 Birr (US$ 50) a month when the money could be better spent in other areas.

Development harm

Admittedly, this is where Ethiopia's long-term development is being harmed.

The defence spending is at the expense of development projects designed to ensure that Ethiopia is better prepared to face the problems of drought in future years.

Ethiopia's Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi, has publicly acknowledged that the war is affecting the country's on-going fight against hunger.

He argues that Ethiopia could not afford the economic burden of another year in a state of conflict and this is precisely why his forces launched a major military offensive against Eritrea this month.

"Ending the war quickly is of paramount importance in fighting poverty and famine", he says.

However, observers make a distinction between the war and the current humanitarian situation in Ethiopia.

If the fighting stopped tomorrow, it is unlikely that it would make any difference to the immediate relief efforts.

The UN World Food Programme says that at present, everything possible is already being done to help the people of Ethiopia, regardless of the war.


Border decision

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