ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia, April 14--It was the women and children of Ethiopia--their gaunt, malnourished faces stretched thin around hunger-haunted and imploring eyes--who brought the stark specter of Third World famine into America's living room in the early 1980s.

Now, following three years of drought and poverty, those faces are back.

"The elderly, nursing mothers and the very young in the drought areas are already very vulnerable," said Francis Stephanos, the East Africa director of Lutheran World Relief. "Help now is much better than help later."

Ethiopia is one of the poorest and least developed countries in the world. In particular, those dependent on the nation's agriculture-based economy are put at risk during the frequent periods of drought. Other countries in the Horn of Africa region--including Eritrea, Tanzania and Burundi--are also affected. The United Nations estimates as many as 16 million people are at risk of famine.

Relief experts say as many as 800,000 people in Ethiopia are already threatened with starvation and, if the crisis escalates into a full-blown famine, as many as 8 million of the country's 60 million people could be affected. The U.N. World Food Program has estimated 8 million people are in need of food aid.

Relief agencies are pouring millions into the country in an effort to halt the crisis from turning into a disaster.

Lutheran World Relief is joining with Roman Catholic and Orthodox relief agencies in a $32 million program to secure, transport and distribute some 89,000 metric tons of food.

"Catholic Relief Services is acting to halt this emergency before it becomes a tragedy," said Ken Hackett, executive director of Catholic Relief Services.

"Our brothers and sisters in Ethiopia are suffering from malnutrition and disease and we are working with our local partners to provide them with the most fundamental human needs--food, water and shelter."

Nigel Marsh, regional spokesman for World Vision International, the evangelical relief agency, said the situation in some parts of Ethiopia, especially along the border area with Somalia, "is dire.

"Signs of an emerging disaster, such as children on the brink of death, are evident in many areas," he added.

World Vision is appealing to donors for $10 million in relief aid, including 43,000 tons of food for Ethiopia alone.

Ethiopian government officials say they say the disaster-in-waiting can be averted if donor nations step up food supplies to the pipeline the United Nations, relief agencies and the Ethiopian government has put in place.

"Pledges and promises made in the last few days give us a realistic chance of averting disaster," Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said on Thursday. "I do not believe there will be famine in this country."

But even as pledges are made and relief groups scramble to raise the funds to buy the food and other supplies necessary to avert the tragedy, Ethiopia's longstanding feud with Eritrea bids to upset, or at least make much complicated, the aid effort.

"Current food distribution efforts have been hampered by the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea, as the most convenient distribution route passes through war zones," Catholic Relief Services said.

On Friday, U.N. special envoy Catherine Bertini said that land-locked Ethiopia's refusal to allow the use of Eritrean ports for unloading relief supplies could further hamper the relief effort.

Bertini has asked the Ethiopian government to permit it to use the Eritrean port of Assab for the transmission of 800,000 tons of food aid--a request the government has refused to grant.

Ethiopia and Eritrea have been at war since 1998 and the Ethiopian government is currently spending an estimated $1 million a day on the military effort--money some Western diplomats say could be put to better use.

In addition to food, the World Health Organization said medical care is also desperately needed in Ethiopia. Friday, the WHO appealed for $6.5 million to provide medical help in Ethiopia for the next three months.

Spokesman Valery Abramov said both drugs and more medical personnel were needed in the country.

"It appears that diarrheal diseases represent the biggest threat, as well as respiratory diseases, measles, meningitis and possibly cholera," said Abramov.

World Food Program spokeswoman Christiane Berthiaume said her agency had so far received 60 percent of the financial contributions it needed to meet its commitment to supply 250,000 tons of aid to Ethiopia this year. But, she added, commitments elsewhere in the world meant that the WFP could only supply a third of the food that was needed in Ethiopia. "More and more people are at risk because the rains have not come," the U.N.'s Bertini said. "We will be coming back in the next few weeks with additional requests. We do not know how much more will be requested, it needs to be further assessed...but I expect it will be more than 100,000 tons.

"Millions of lives can be saved if the international community can come forward with contributions quickly and generously,'' she said.

Oxfam, the British-based private aid organization, charged Friday that the Ethiopian situation was "a crisis waiting to happen," and said both the government and international donors had failed to adequately tackle the underlying problems of development and food security.

"How could this happen again?" Nick Roseveare, Oxfam's emergency coordinator for the Horn of Africa, said in a statement distributed in Addis Ababa. "While drought might be inevitable, famine is not. It is based on the hard facts of poverty."

Landlocked Ethiopia is embroiled in a 23-month border war with its neighbor, and this has has prevented aid agencies from the sorghum, wheat, maize and cooking oil via the Red Sea ports of Assab and Massawa. Before the conflict broke out in May 1998, 75 percent of Ethiopia's relief food needs came in through Assab.

Now aid groups are forced to use the port of Djibouti in the Gulf of Aden and Berbera on the northern Somali coast. Up to 120,000 tons of grain a month are expected to land in port in the coming months. Some experts think Djibouti and Berbera won't be able to cope with the amount.

Bertini said the state of war does not affect the willingness of the U.N. to intervene in Ethiopia.

"The first responsibility is to keep children alive," she said. "There is no reason in the world that any child has to die when there is enough food to keep the child alive. We cannot discriminate against a child because we do not like something a government is doing."

more from beliefnet and our partners
Close Ad