Ethiopia struggling with famine, repeat of 1984
Religion News Service
The onset of malaria season and long droughts have aggravated an already desperate situation, raising fears that the food shortage now crippling the Horn of Africa may prove as deadly as the country's infamous 1984 famine, when 1 million Ethiopians perished and 7 million suffered from disease and chronic malnutrition.
"Twenty years ago, when we saw an equally terrible situation in Ethiopia, we swore this can't happen again and it's happening," said Ken Hackett, president of Catholic Relief Services, the humanitarian arm of the Catholic Church. "We have been unable to ameliorate what is probably the most severe food crisis anywhere in the world."
With more than 12 million of Ethiopia's 64 million people already depending on food aid to survive, experts say greater international support is needed to ward off an impending famine and fight food shortages in the future.
But despite the Ethiopian government's attempts to thwart widespread famine by sounding an early warning last year, international response has fallen short. Emergency food rations have been cut from 15 kilograms of grain a month to 12 kilograms because of a supply shortage, said Julius Coles of Africare, a nonprofit organization that delivers aid to 35 African countries.
So far, therapeutic feeding centers have helped millions to narrowly escape death, said Charles MacCormick of Save the Children, who returned recently from a humanitarian mission to Ethiopia.
"You literally see thousands of children in these centers who would have had less than a day ahead of them," he said. "This could have been 1984; millions could have died of starvation and disease."
According to a United Nations estimate, between 60,000 and 80,000 Ethiopian children may suffer from acute malnutrition this summer, leaving many vulnerable to malaria and measles.
Rather than actual starvation, most people affected by famine die of infection because their immune systems are so weakened, MacCormick said.
With widespread poverty and 3 million HIV/AIDS cases compounding the effects of the famine, an estimated 1.6 million tons of food aid will be required to prevent millions of deaths. But food aid alone will not stave off a crisis without additional investments in agriculture, education, water and health, experts said.
"Treating the symptoms of poverty is simply not sufficient," said Peter Bell, president of CARE USA, an international humanitarian organization.
Although the U.S. government has provided generous food aid — in the realm of $500 million — it has invested only $6 million in agricultural aid, too little to revive farms ravaged by drought, Bell said.
Chronic poverty may be the biggest contributor to Ethiopia's quickening famine cycles and the most difficult to combat, humanitarian agencies said.
In a country with one of the lowest per-capita incomes in the world, where the average person makes $99 a year and 80 percent of the population lives on less than a dollar a day, most cannot afford to invest in seeds, tools, livestock and other necessities for food production.
Kathyrn Wolford, president of Lutheran World Relief, said people are selling their remaining crops and animals out of desperation.
"We walked into households where literally there was nothing left but a mat to sleep on and cooking pots," she said.
Some said they were encouraged by the progress of countries like India and Bangladesh, which once suffered from colossal food shortages but now export food, offering hope that Ethiopia will one day be free from the specter of hunger.
"These problems have been solved and the model is there," said Dean Triantafilou of International Orthodox Christian Charities.
"The world community has to step up to the plate."
Copyright © 2003 The Seattle Times Company