Ethiopia food crisis cannot be wished away with sacks of grain

The famine early warning network (FEWS) has warned that at least 18 million people are facing food shortages in East Africa with more than half living in Ethiopia.

These figures are serious, but it is not unusual for people in Ethiopia to be facing food shortages on this scale.

The difference between now and the famine of 20 years ago, when the images from the 1984 and 1985 famine shocked the world, is that relief aid can now more easily get through because infrastructure on the ground has improved.

Yet relief aid does not tackle the drought and conflict that cause these recurrent food shortages which continue year after year.

Ethiopia has received more relief aid but less development aid in the past 20 years than any other country. As an example, the United States gave $550 million in emergency relief to Ethiopia in response to food shortages in 2003, but only gave $4 million in the same year for the development of Ethiopia's agriculture. Short-sighted relief operations do not build on people's ability to support themselves.

Christian Aid, as well as providing emergency relief when there is a need, also works with partners who focus on long term development in regions that are prone to drought and food shortages. These partners work with communities to help them conserve their water resources and regenerate their land.

Our partner, Water Action, works in and around Kombolcha in northern Amhara. This region was badly affected by the 1984-5 famine. Thousands of people were moved to feeding shelters or resettled in other parts of Ethiopia.

Twenty years ago people depended on the weather. Yemir Endis, the chairmen of one of Water Action's water committees in Harbu said that 'in those days we just waited for the rain'.

Water Action has helped people like Yemir and the farming community in Harbu to find ways to use their water resources more effectively by building irrigation schemes, protecting springs, harvesting rain water and digging wells.

Water Action also encourages communities to protect their land by planting trees and building terraces to stop soil erosion and limiting the grazing patterns of their livestock.

This kind of work has helped people in this region to protect themselves from the effects of drought and reduced their need for relief aid. Until the underlying causes of the food shortages in the Horn of Africa are addressed through long term development work the need for relief on such a scale as highlighted yesterday by FEWS will not go away.