A famine year in Ethiopia

Originally published
Director of Advocacy Larry Thompson of Refugees International recently returned from a mission to Ethiopia.
The year 2003 may be unprecedented in the demands it places on aid agencies and relief workers. Food shortages are huge in southern Africa; Afghanistan continues to need massive aid; and a conflict in Iraq could create a new, large number of displaced persons needing immediate help.

One of the biggest and worst humanitarian crises of 2003 is Ethiopia. Ethiopia underwent a serious drought and decreased food production in 2002. In this country of 65 million people, 11 million people are estimated to need international food aid, and that number could rise quickly to 14 million. As much as 1.5 to 2 million tons of food aid, with a total value of $600 million, may be needed this year. The outlook depends upon the arrival of rains this spring and summer so that farmers can plant a crop for harvest in the fall.

Thanks to the early warning and advocacy of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the World Food Program (WFP), and the UN Office of the Coordinator for Humanitarian Assistance (OCHA) the international response to Ethiopian food needs has been sizeable and timely. The food pipeline, however, may go dry by May if additional pledges are not forthcoming.

Despite the food aid, Ethiopians are starving. Near Butajira, 70 miles south of Addis Ababa, 200 of the poorest women in one community and their small children gathered to meet with Refugees International. Most of the children showed signs of malnutrition; 30 or 40 babies were so wasted that without immediate treatment, they would be unlikely to survive. We saw a similar scene at another nearby village. Yet, these are villagers who are receiving a monthly food ration from the Ethiopian government relief agency. Obviously, the ration is not adequate to prevent large-scale and life-threatening malnutrition among the most vulnerable members of the society: nursing mothers and their children.

The recommended food ration per person per month in Ethiopia is 15 kilograms of wheat, 4.5 kilograms of CSB (corn soya blend), and 1.5 kilograms of vegetable oil. Most food aid recipients, however, are receiving only 12.5 kilograms of wheat and irregular rations of CSB and oil, due to shortages in food aid.

The non food-needs of the population are also crucial -- and mostly unmet. In the drought-stricken Shinile district north of the city of Dire Dawa in eastern Ethiopia, the daily arrival of a water tanker truck is the lifeline for many settlements whose wells have dried up. Woman and small children make up most of the inhabitants of the brush huts that are the homes of the Issa pastoralists. Most of the men have departed with their herds of cattle, sheep, goats, and camels in search of water and grazing. The women and children remaining behind survive on tankered water, food aid, and a small amount of milk they get from their remaining goats.

Shinile and other dry zones are showing signs of impending famine. In the town of Bardote, near Awash, sorghum grain prices are high in the marketplace -- up from a normal 140 to 230 Ethiopian birr (8.5 birr =$1) per 100 kilograms. Maize is scarce in the market. Animal prices are down, reflecting an oversupply as pastoralists reduce their herds. Farmers reported total crop failures due to lack of rain last year. If the rains are good this year, they will plant a crop; but they must depend upon international food aid until harvest next fall. Surveys of acute malnutrition in Shinile show levels of around 15 percent, which is in the crisis range by international standards.

The majority of Ethiopians are subsistence farmers, but even for those raising cash crops the outlook is poor. Prices for agriculture exports -- coffee and the narcotic leaf, chat -- are down. Ethiopia is Africa's largest producer of cattle, but the biggest nearby market, Saudi Arabia, has banned livestock imports from Ethiopia because of disease.

Drought and the threat of famine are becoming customary in Ethiopia. In a "normal" year, four or five million people lack sufficient food. In a drought year, this number climbs dramatically. With each successive food crisis, the poor become poorer and less able to weather the next crisis. Eighty percent of Ethiopians are farmers who produce too little food on too little land. The longer-term solutions to Ethiopia's food deficit -- not now being addressed adequately -- include investments in agriculture and livestock, land tenure reform, and a market-oriented agricultural policy.

Ethiopia is in danger of becoming a permanent ward of international relief agencies. Indicators place the country among the very poorest of the poor. But Ethiopia has the strengths of a durable culture and tradition, a functioning government, and a large cadre of educated and well-trained personnel.

Refugees International therefore recommends that:

  • Donors move immediately to provide the large quantities of additional food aid that will be necessary to prevent famine in Ethiopia this year.
  • The Ethiopian government and donors increase the food aid to at-risk individuals from the present 12.5 kilograms of wheat to a full ration of 15 kilograms of wheat, 4.5 kilograms of CSB, and 1.5 kilograms of oil. The objective of increasing the food ration will be to combat acute malnutrition, which is increasing in many regions of Ethiopia.
  • The government, relief agencies, and non-governmental organizations increase their nutritional surveys, monitoring, and therapeutic feeding programs to find and combat serious malnutrition before it becomes life threatening.
  • Donors place additional emphasis on meeting additional, non-food relief needs of Ethiopia, such as water, livestock, livelihood protection and health. Water harvesting should be both a short- and long-term priority of donors in desert areas, but water projects are sensitive and potentially conflictive and must be implemented in line with local cultural practices and good environmental management.
  • A donor consortium work with the Ethiopian government to develop long-term development and agricultural strategies to improve food security.