Ethiopian food crisis: update

from Christian Aid
Published on 25 Apr 2000
Christian Aid is running an emergency appeal for communities threatened by starvation in Ethiopia and neighbouring countries, and is calling on donor countries to fulfil their pledges of food aid for the region.
Food reserves are critically low in Ethiopia and more than eight million people are at risk. If those in danger from food shortage in the wider Horn of Africa region are included, the figure rises to 16 million.

Those most vulnerable are the children and the elderly, who are dying from hunger and related diseases. While drought is the major cause of the food shortages, the impact of this natural disaster is being worsened by man-made factors: conflict and insecurity in the region. Christian Aid continues to work with communities in Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia and Kenya, who have all been hit by the drought.

Current situation

The food crisis currently affecting 16 million people in the Horn of Africa is extremely serious. Eight million of the people affected are in Ethiopia, with a further eight million spread across Eritrea, Somalia and Kenya. Severe malnutrition and deaths among the most vulnerable children are being reported.

Christian Aid has been warning since last September that unless food aid reaches the drought-affected areas to sustain people until the next hoped-for harvest in June, the situation will worsen. More than eight million Ethiopians are now immediately at risk and in need of 900,000 tonnes of relief food aid, or risk starvation - figures comparable to those of the 1984 famine.

The failure of the rains is devastating, and according to one of Christian Aid's partner-organisations working in Konso, in southern Ethiopia, even if the rain starts now people there do not expect to grow food until 2001. For cattle herders in regions such as the Ogaden, failure of the rains has already started to kill much of their livestock. Some communities have abandoned their homes and migrated to other parts of the country, where there is a higher chance of obtaining food and water.

Although substantial pledges from donors have been made in response to the Government of Ethiopia's appeal in January, the food itself has not arrived. As of 4 April, World Food Programme figures indicate that the total pledges of relief cereals to date are 533,547 tonnes but that only 35,829 tonnes (seven per cent) had been delivered.


Why this emergency now?

This emergency began with the failure in 1998 of the short (belg) harvest, and the long (meher) rainy season and harvest. The Ethiopian government and Christian Aid partners ensured that emergency food aid was sent to these areas which helped to keep people going through these crop failures. But things got worse in 1999 when the belg rains also failed, and farmers, unable to plant the primary staple crops of maize and sorghum, tried instead to plant short-maturing crops in the hope that the next meher rains would come on time. They came late and were patchy for most of the season. Harvests were therefore poor for the second year in a row. To make matters worse, some areas actually received heavy bursts of rain that caused floods. Pest infestations have caused additional crop damage.

The war

While there have been no major offensives between Ethiopia and Eritrea recently, both countries remain in a state of high alert. Peace negotiations under the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) are continuing but with no real sign of an agreement.

The current food crisis would have occurred even without the war, but hostilities between Ethiopia and Eritrea have compounded the situation. Access to the border area is difficult, trade has been disrupted and 350,000 people have been displaced from their homes. The conflict has also affected donors' willingness to provide support, and many, including the UK government, have indicated that future development aid is dependent on progress with the peace negotiations. Humanitarian aid will continue, however.

Christian Aid believes it is right to maintain humanitarian aid unconditionally, provided that it can be delivered unconditionally through local partners who are dedicated to the relief of suffering, and who are not bound by conditions imposed by the combatants. There is no evidence in Ethiopia that humanitarian aid has been diverted to the military, either from aid consignments or from the country's own food reserve.

Christian Aid's response

Christian Aid has been aware of an impending crisis for several months because of early warning information received from the partners and the Ethiopian government, and has been calling on the international community to act quickly. To date Christian Aid has already spent £400,000 towards relief efforts in the region.