Early relief tactics could save lives. Averting Ethiopian famine

``There is no food at home,'' said Tariku, as he paused beside a steep rocky road, a few miles from the small town of Korem, Ethiopia. He and his family and several hundred other Ethiopians had walked from their home in Sokota, 60 miles away, to reach Korem, a food distribution center.

A scorching drought withered their crops this fall. They sold their livestock to get money to buy food. Eventually, the money ran out - and so did the food.

The government estimates that more than 5.2 million people nationwide are, or in a few months will be, without food because of this year's drought. Massive international assistance is urgently needed in Ethiopia to avert a repeat of the major famine that enveloped this nation in 1984-85, relief officials say.

During the last drought, which struck many sub-Saharan nations from 1983 to 1985, millions of people were uprooted in their search for food. Estimates indicate that from 500,000 to 1 million people alone died in Ethiopia, one of the hardest-hit nations.

But there are important differences - so far - between the response to Ethiopia's last drought and this one. Officials hope these differences will save lives.

Last time, huge feeding camps were opened in drought areas. People lived there for months. Many arrived at the camps too weak to be nourished back to health. Others died from diseases, especially prevalent in the filthy camp conditions, which officials say the people were especially susceptible to because of their weakened state.

This time, the quick response of the international community to the Ethiopian government's advance warnings of a food shortage has allowed relief agencies to set up smaller, widely scattered food distribution centers. People can pick up monthly food rations and return home.

Another difference is that people know food is being distributed early and are arriving at the distribution centers in better physical condition than many who reached the feeding camps last time.

So far, no camps have been opened, and both Ethiopian and international officials are glad. ``I hope we'll be able to prevent the establishment of camps,'' says Berhanu Jembere, commissioner of the Ethiopian Relief and Rehabilitation Commission, the agency responsible for relief efforts.

It is likely, however, that a few camps will be set up because some people have come from distances too great for them to traverse regularly, says Nicholas Winer, country representative for Oxfam, the British relief and development agency.

And relief officials are concerned that figures indicating there are 2.5 million people in need of food in Tigre and Eritrea may be underestimated. There are many people entirely cut off from the major relief operations because of civil wars that have raged here for more than two decades. Indigenous development agencies that purchase and take relief supplies into these regions from Sudan are appealing for food relief.

But most relief workers on the government side of the operation are still hopeful that famine can be averted.

``I have a feeling this time we can make it, provided things continue as they started, through 1988,'' says Cesar Bullo, a development worker in the Makale region for more than a decade and now director of emergency food relief to 14 distribution centers for Catholic Relief Services. CRS expects to distribute a major portion of the total estimated 1 to 1.2 million metric tons of food relief needed through 1988.

All Ethiopian and international relief officials interviewed echoed Mr. Bullo's concern that there will be widespread famine if food deliveries are not continued at a high rate and without major interruptions. Breaks in food distribution can be caused by equipment failures, erratic food shipments from abroad, overloaded port facilities, poor roads, and rebel attacks on truck convoys. There have already been several such attacks, including one on an international food relief convoy in October.

Officials also stress the need to continue long-term development work that increases food production and reduces the risks posed by periodic droughts: anti-soil erosion efforts, including improved farming practices, better irrigation systems, and planting trees. There is also a great need to improve roads and build warehouses. During the last famine, many development agencies transferred significant resources to emergency relief. In some cases, this interrupted long-term projects and left some short of funds.

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