Under Ethiopian sun, grain sits and rots
They are everywhere in this hot, humid, wind-swept port on the Red Sea: bags of famine-relief grain donated by Western countries and India, piled up in mounds beside ships, on docks, under shelters, out in the open. Yet they shouldn't be here at all.Skip to next paragraph
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They are desperately needed in the rest of Ethiopia by hungry and starving people now estimated by the government to number 10 million.
The backlog of wheat at this port alone, has soared to 85,000 tons, enough, according to the United Nations, to feed 5 million Ethiopians for a month.
So slow is the movement south that a vitally-needed airdrop program by British and West German cargo planes from Addis Ababa to remote communities in the north is in danger of shutting down because storage sheds at Addis airport are almost empty.
A single UN statistic sums up the transport crisis here: 60 percent of the food coming in from other countries has yet to be distributed to those who need it.
A lot of these bags in Assab have lain here for two months or more. White bags from the United States and Australia, made of polystyrene instead of jute, grow brittle after eight weeks in a relentless sun that pushes daytime temperatures above 100 degrees F. The bags crack when walked on or even touched. Grain spills and ultimately spoils.
Recent rains that battered Assab with almost a year's average fall in a single hour rotted about 5,000 tons of grain that had been left in the open air. That's enough to feed 300,000 Ethiopians for a month at famine-camp rations, relief officials say.
Marxist-style red tape creates endless delays. Unloading fees incongruously high for grain given free by other countries. The captain of a Cypriot-registered 16,500-ton cargo vessel which unloaded a gift of wheat from the Greek government said he had to pay $61,000 to discharge.
All this despite a pledge by Ethiopian leader Mengistu Haile Mariam on May 8 to the UN to solve unloading and transport problems partly by providing more military trucks.
On a visit to Assab, Mengistu said the rate at which trucks were loaded to leave the port would rise by some 200 percent.
It did so the day he was here (May 8) and stayed high several days after that. It shot up from 548 tons of food on May 5 to 3,600 tons on May 8. But by May 11 it had leveled off at 3,500 tons.
Yet coordinating officials with the UN World Food Program in Addis Ababa say that even if it remains high by early June the backlog is likely to be 111,000 tons.
Little wonder then that Desmond Taylor, the deputy representative for the UN World Food Program in Ethiopia, says the Ethiopian government ``has not responded as well as we had anticipated in moving grain'' in recent months.
The transport crisis symbolizes the extreme difficulties in this impoverished country of managing the huge grain relief effort.
It is not that the West or India is failing to provide enough food. The problem is moving it inside Ethiopia.
To be fair, Mr. Taylor makes these balancing points: ``The Ethiopians are trying to do what they can, in the face of civil war, poor communications, and so on.
``You must also remember that we usually don't bring in food aid through Assab at this time of the year because the port is filled with fertilizer imports and coffee exports, and these tie up trucks as well. . . . The normal commercial life of the country must continue.''
Nonetheless the Assab bottleneck comes at a bad time for the Mengistu image abroad. In late April, local party officials ordered troops to force some 35,000 famine victims out of Ibnat camp, the largest in the country.