Drought pushes more Ethiopians into relief camps

On the flat, dusty outskirts of this small Ethiopian town, 10,000 people are camped waiting for food and water. They have been driven from their land by a succession of crop failures.

The more fortunate arrived with donkeys and a few chickens or goats. Others walked for up to four days with empty stomachs and their youngest children on their backs.

They turned their cattle loose near shrinking ponds and streams and pegged their own chances of survival on this small government relief station and the ability of administrators in Addis Ababa, the capital, to keep it stocked with food.

The monthly ration here is 66 pounds of grain and 11 pounds of powdered milk and corn soya meal for a family of five - about 75 percent of the amount United Nations agencies consider necessary for survival in these conditions. There is little prospect of more.

Emergency food reserves in the capital stand at just 12,000 tons for more than 3 million other people in similar circumstances.

There are almost a dozen relief camps and emergency food stations like Ebinat in the north of the country. In the worst affected regions of Gondar, Wollo, Eritrea, and Tigre, men and women sometimes walk two days to the nearest water hole to collect a three-day supply of drinking water for their families.

The Gondar region alone could swallow the nation's emergency reserves.

Adaye Mumuye, regional head of the government's Relief and Rehabilitation Commission, says 450,000 people are in need of assistance. He has requested 15, 000 tons of wheat and 3,700 tons of powdered supplements and vegetable oils for the next six months. Even if he receives that, he says, he will be able to reach only 60 to 70 percent of those affected.

''We don't have the trucks and we can only supply those who come to the relief stations,'' he says. ''Those people have to travel two to four days on foot and the weak cannot make it.''

Mr. Mumuye says there is little prospect of the refugees' returning to their villages soon. Refugees in Ebinat told this reporter they had been in the camp since October.

Kebede Tato, head of the government's soil and water conservation division, says the seriousness of the nation's plight this year is illustrated by the fact that people are abandoning their fields a month before the harvest. The government, he concludes, will have to find a way to carry much of the rural population for another year at least.

''Even if the rains arrive in May, people will have to be given seed . . . in addition to their food rations,'' he says. ''Most of those affected have lost everything.''

The death toll directly attributable to drought in Gondar for the first six months of this year is 87 people and 177,000 cattle. Mr. Kebede says the only difference between the current situation and the famine of 1972-73, when about 200,000 people and many millions of livestock and perished, was that the government recognized the early signs and mobilized its resources immediately.

The Ethiopian government has declared a state of emergency and set up a commission to handle relief. But a letter circulated to foreign embassies with requests for supplies five months ago has drawn a meager response.

The World Food Program estimates the national grain deficit at about 250,000 tons this year. But the program's senior adviser in Addis Ababa, Martin Moch, says the US projection of a 2 million-ton Ethiopian deficit might be closer to the mark.

He says the American forecast was based on satellite pictures that ground teams could not equal for accuracy. He adds the view from the capital has been clouded by a national population estimate of 31 million people, when recent findings suggest closer to 40 million.

The World Food Program has so far provided 15,000 tons of grain, including the 12,000-ton national reserve. Canada has promised 45,000 tons, the European Community 20,000 tons, and West Germany an additional 4,000 tons. Australia is said to be considering a shipment of 10,000 tons.

American aid has slowed to a trickle since the leftist overthrow of Emperor Haile Selassie in 1974 and the new government's subsequent refusal to pay compensation for expropriated American property. The Dutch are contesting similar claims against the ''provisional'' military government of chairman Mengistu Haile Mariam. But the Italians, who resolved their claims last year before a newly formed national compensation commission, have responded to the emergency this year with 10,000 tons of rice.

Shimelis Adugna, commissioner of the Relief and Rehabilitation Commission, says he is disappointed with the international response and is growing increasingly nervous at the prospect of massive losses of human life.

He says he is sure the country would be getting more foreign aid if it was not a socialist state. But he was optimistic about US aid following a recent visit by a top State Department official to some of the affected areas.

Mr. Shimelis says Ethiopia has been receiving a foreign aid equivalent of $8 per person compared with the $22 average of other countries in similar circumstances.

He said Ethiopia has received little from its socialist allies in the past five months.

''The people have been living on the edge of existence for many years now,'' he said. ''They work very hard. But the fruits of their labors are often small, and whenever there is a rain failure they are knocked off balance and must rely on the national government or the international community. This is one of those years.''

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