The successive poor rains have affected many areas of the country, and a full scale emergency relief operation is underway in the south. However the situation in the highly populated north-eastern highlands is also particularly worrying. Recent research by Save the Children(a) highlights the fact that the cumulative impact of droughts and crop failures is pushing more and more families into poverty and destitution. Many have now exhausted all their normal coping mechanisms. Even better off households have seen a descent into poverty as they have been forced to sell off their animals in order to survive. This in turn impacts on poorer families who no longer have the opportunity of employment in herding or farming. Many families lack seeds and the oxen to plough their land.
Relief food is desperately needed to respond to this situation. Whilst food aid is being distributed at the moment, more is required. In 1999, food aid was critical in enabling poor families in the highlands to stay at home and cultivate their land for the next harvest, rather than abandoning hope and moving to towns. Without critical food support many more people would find themselves without the capacity to continue farming. If the response is late or inadequate, then there is a risk of hundreds of thousands of people leaving their land and selling their belongings, in search of food.
This year national food reserves have been critically low. Although donor and government response has eased the situation, most shipments are not due to arrive in the country until April. Last year the maximum amount of food distributed in any one month was 64,000 mt. This year, almost double that amount needs to be distributed every month. Transport and distribution problems are compounded by the inaccessibility of ports in Eritrea due to the war with Ethiopia.
Save the Children is deeply concerned that hundreds of thousands of people in the northern highlands of Ethiopia are struggling to make ends meet. Rural people in these areas are acutely vulnerable to rain failure and other disruptions to their livelihoods. Immediate food assistance is required. However, this must be accompanied with much greater investment in initiatives addressing the underlying causes of food insecurity. Concerted efforts are required of the international donor community to address poverty and to ensure that the dignity of so many Ethiopian people is safeguarded from recurrent hunger and famine.
Save the Children has been actively participating in securing and distributing food aid in the north east highlands (North and South Wollo, Wag Hamra) and in East Hararghe and is currently distributing over 16,500 mt of food aid. Supplementary food is being provided to children in the worst affected areas and the organisation is monitoring children's nutritional status to ensure a quick and effective response. The charity also has a development programme aimed at finding long term local solutions to the continued problems of food insecurity, including work in agriculture, veterinary support, restocking poor households with animals, and the use of food for work to strengthen rural infrastructures.