By Tsegaye Tadesse
ASEBE TEFERI, Ethiopia, Jan 23 (Reuters) - Faissal Junde once lived the traditional, self sufficient life of an Ethiopian peasant farmer, tilling a small plot of land and rearing cattle in the eastern region of Hararghe.
But a drought that began in 2001 has devastated sorghum and maize crops, reducing Faissal and other proud peasant farmers in the region to eating roots and wild fruits. They now queue up for food aid, which relief workers say is fast running out.
Until the drought, Faissal's family of eight had thrived on their crop, their oxen and qat plants -- a stimulant prized in the Horn of Africa. He was able to afford life's little luxuries like coffee, sugar and clothes for his children.
"Difficult times set in as rains stopped and cropland and qat plants were stunted and shrivelled," Faissal said at Asebe Teferi, a town 350 km (217 miles) east of the capital Addis Ababa.
"Pastureland turned to dust, river beds dried up. Our choice oxen for which eastern Hararghe was famed turned into living skeletons, and eventually died," he said.
Desperate to feed his family, Faissal joined crowds of peasant farmers receiving relief supplies from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) in Asebe Teferi on Wednesday.
The drought now threatens 11 million Ethiopians with severe food shortages in the next few months, according to U.N. aid workers.
Aid workers say they urgently need more donations to prevent food supplies running out when the effects of the drought peak between April and June.
CHILDREN ATE WILD PLANTS
But Faissal was thankful for what he received.
"My wife, who has not seen so much wheat for a long time, will now grind the wheat and prepare porridge for the children who had survived on wild fruits and roots of wild plants," he said, shuffling away from the distribution centre.
Another farmer, Ashene Umer, 40, said the drought had all but wiped out his qat plants which had earned him $50 three times a year.
"There was no need for me to plant crops. I used to buy all of life's essentials from sales of qat, but as the drought set in, rivers from which I used to irrigate my farm dried up, and the qat plants were shrivelled and stunted."
"Alongside my qat farm I was a proud man who could count up to three choice oxen, the value of which was estimated at over $150 each," Ashene said. "But everything was lost and my family of six were turned into virtual beggars," he said, taking away 2.5 kg (5.5 lb) of USAID wheat to feed his family.
Ffisseha Yifru of aid agency CARE UK said she only had 35,000 kg of food in stock at Asebe Teferi.
"What we did was to select those in dire need and give them the food," she said. "We are aware that the remaining 3,000 farmers also need urgent assistance, but we have no food now."
Rain drizzled over the pastureland of Asebe Teferi on Wednesday after months of dry spells.
"This is a freak, untimely rain, not good for planting, but it is also a blessing because it could help pasture to revive," said Abdul Ahmed, 58.
"But if it rains only for a few days and stops as all freak rains do, the result would be a proliferation of pests which could devour whatever is left," he added.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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