Ethiopia calls for aid to avert famine. But officials worry even quick response will be too slow

Drought has returned to Ethiopia. For the second time in three years, millions of Ethiopians need emergency food aid to survive.

This is the end of what was supposed to be the rainy season but many parts of the country have seen little or no rain in the past week. From southeastern Hararge Province to northern Eritrea Province, farmers are giving up on crops that are stunted and plagued with insects. At a time when they should be weeding or replanting grain, many are ploughing their crops under and sowing beans, a fall-back in times of drought.

Observers in Addis Ababa, the capital, say that up to six million people may be affected by this years drought. Although this is fewer than the 9 million hit in 1984-85, some of affected may suffer more, says Gerard Salole, Ethiopian director of Save the Children (US). ``In some regions, rain fall has been less than at any time in recorded history,'' he reports. Many farmers in drought areas have not recovered from the last disaster and have little food or livestock to tide them over.

One hopeful sign is that donors are reacting more quickly than they did when the warning of the last famine began. The US Agency for International Development sent an investigatory mission to Ethiopia last week that will recommend provision of 115,000 metric tons of food aid. Congress would have to make a special appropriation to pay for an emergency shipment of this magnitude (See story on bill to impose trade sanctions on Ethiopia, Page 12).

In Tigre Province, Habtu Tewolde, the regional head the Relief and Rehabilitation Commission (RRC), the official body responsible for aid distribution and development projects, fears that there will be virtually no harvest in that province this fall. Because of Tigre's rugged terrain and the presence of rebel groups who contest government control, it is difficult to get relief supplies into remote areas.

In October, says Mr. Tewolde, people may begin to come to the provincial capital of Makele in search of food. If they do, he warned, Makele will once again become the site of relief camps such as those that horrified the world in the fall of 1984. The goverment and aid organizations here are determined to avoid the estalishment of relief camps. ``Camps are a last resort,'' Tamarat Kebede, head of aid coordination and international relations for the RRC. Recovery from drought, he says, is much more difficult if farmers abandon their land.

To avoid camps, both the Ethiopian goverment and donors will need to act fast. RRC officials say that many families here will exhaust their food reserves by November or December. And RRC stock of just over 100,000 metric tons of grain are sufficient to feed those likely to be affected for only about six weeks.

But months can elapse between a request for food aid and its delivery. United States Embassy officials say that food committed now will not arrive in Ethiopia until January at the earliest.

Muhammed Jarsa, a farmer with five children to feed in a village in Shoa Province, says that he has already given up on his sorgum fields. ``I would like to plant beans,'' he says ``but there are no seed to be found in the market.'' People are buying seeds to eat, and the price of grain in his village has risen more than 50 percent in the last week, he says.

The Ethiopian government has called for help. Last week it appealed to the international communitty for 950,000 metric tons of grain and other food supplies over the coming year. Mr. Salole and others say that more may be needed.

Aid officials here say the goverment is better prepared to handle the help it gets than it was during the last famine.

``The whole machinery for responding is better than it was,'' says Patrick McClay of Oxfam International's Ethiopian program.

Even so, a massive effort will need to begin immediately to prevent the suffering that occurred three years ago. If we wait, warns Salole, ``you will see the pictures of starving babies again.''

A report on Ethiopia is scheduled to run Oct. 10 and 11 on the Christian Science Monitor Reports television show.

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