Prolonged dry spell in Ethiopia raises new concerns about famine

Ethiopia again faces a growing shortage of food, due to lack of rain. Increased international food relief will be needed this year - less than two years after a massive famine in this country in 1984 and 1985 - according to Ethiopian, UN, and international relief officials.

How much additional relief will be needed beyond what is already being supplied from abroad depends on the extent of damage from the current drought. What is widely termed a ``very serious'' situation now could turn into a ``disaster'' in terms of crop production if the drought continues through mid-August, one Ethiopian relief official says.

Three million Ethiopians currently depend on food aid to survive, according the UN Development Program. If the drought continues, at least 1 million more Ethiopians would face ``risk of starvation'' without food aid, says Michael Priestley, the UNDP resident coordinator.

Already there are some signs of famine in Eritrea, in northern Ethiopia, Mr. Priestley says.

The UN's World Food Program in Rome, based on on-site visits in the country, says ``without doubt major relief efforts will be required in Eritrea and Tigre.'' The situation in Tigre Province ``could become worse than during the 1984-85 drought,'' says the World Food Program. Nearly 3 million people in Eritrea and Tigre alone may need food assistance to survive.

Rivers in many areas have shrunk to narrow ribbon of water between rocky beds. Across the country, crops planted earlier this year are ``burning up'' for lack of rain this summer, UN officials say.

Many fields are lying unplanted because rains failed to come in time for the second planting season. The last major rains in many places were in May.

``Even if rains come now, there won't be a full crop,'' says Priestley.

``The emergency [which began during the 1984-85 famine] is still very much on,'' he says. But the number of people needing food relief has dropped from about 9 million in 1985 to about 3 million this year, he says.

Those figures do not include additional need from crop shortages due to lack of rain this year, he and Ethiopian relief officials say. Such an estimate will not be made until mid-September.

Locusts pose an additional threat to Ethiopia.

Experts from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization are stepping up their monitoring of locusts in this country. An assessment of damage and estimate of potential damage will not be known until about mid-August, according to FAO officials.

Can another famine be avoided?

The general feeling among Ethiopian and international officials is that a famine probably can be avoided this time if the international community responds promptly to the already-growing food shortages. That response would have to be much larger if either prolonged drought or locust damage, or both, further reduce crop yields this year.

Experts say the nation is better prepared to respond to the threat of famine now than in 1984. They point to increased Western confidence in the Ethiopian government's assessments of food shortages; the increased capacity at the Ethiopian port of Assab to handle food relief quickly; and the presence of many more international relief and development organizations than there were before the last famine.

But a variety of concerns emerged in interviews with food-needs experts and with farmers and others involved with agriculture in one of the areas of rain shortage, northern Shewa, the administrative region which includes Addis Ababa.

A farmer in the region, wearing a white turban as protection from the strong sun, says the prolonged dry spell is ``very serious, if not for human life, for livestock.'' He expects to get only about half a regular crop this year.

``People are beginning to eat their seeds'' for next year's crop, says an Ethiopian agricultural technician working in the same area.

Dennis Carlson, an American doctor working with Save The Children (US), says he recently examined a child at a relief hospital who ``looked typical of children at the height of the famine.''

He tells of a man from the nomadic Afar tribe who was planning to get married but has decided not to this year. The Afar said his people are too worried about food shortages for him to feel comfortable having a wedding ceremony in which a lot of food is traditionally consumed.

Some Afars are receiving Save the Children food relief at present in remote areas because their herds are still diminished from the 1984-'85 famine. Save the Children already has begun requesting additional funds from its donors for food relief for other Ethiopians in the area, as well, says Carlson.

Will donors give more?

``I think in 1987 they [donors] will respond to warnings [of growing food shortages],'' Dr. Carlson says.

But will they? One official in the international relief community, who asked not to be identified, is not so sure.

``The tendency is to react a little late,'' this official says. ``When you are hungry, you can't wait that long.''

To tide people over during emergencies until Ethiopian and international relief supplies arrive - a process that can easily take several months when involving international shipments - Ethiopia needs much greater grain reserves, the official says.

Major Western food relief for the 1984-85 famine did not start flowing until televised coverage of starving people was shown around the world. By that time, many people had died. Delays in the international response to famine increased the number of deaths, according to the UNDP's Priestley and key relief officials.

Priestley is encouraged by the international response to a recent drought in the Ogaden area of southern Ethiopia and to the Ethiopian government's call for more equipment for use in locust control. Though some 200,000 metric tons of food requested by Ethiopia to meet shortages this year not yet been pledged from donors, Priestley is confident they will be.

``The spotlight has gone off Ethiopia,'' since the 1984-85 famine, says Paul Cunningham, of the Catholic Relief Services office in Addis Ababa. But he believes the name Ethiopia still ``rings the bell'' of world conscience enough to produce needed food relief.

But even as the need for food relief to Ethiopia continues, groups such as Catholic Relief Services and Save the Children are shifting major chunks of their resources for Ethiopia to long-term development needs, including farming and health.

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