Ethiopian News and Views.

The rains have come, the land is lush but Ethiopians still go hungry

Posted 1st August 2008

Despite appearances, a cycle of drought and escalating food prices is taking its toll

  • The Guardian,
  • Friday August 1 2008

Desperate plight … A child waits at a food centre in southern Ethiopia. Up to 10 million people in drought-affected parts of the country now need food assistance. Photograph: Jose Cendon/AFP

The green highlands of West Badawacho in south-west Ethiopia are not a place where you would expect to find hunger. The land is fertile and lush. Rain falls on fields covered with waist-high maize and red flowers dot the tree-lined tracks leading deep into rural farming land.

But West Badawacho is in the grip of the worst “green famine” it has experienced in decades and severe malnutrition can be found in many of the villages dotted among these fields. Here, and across Ethiopia, drought, high population density, successive failed rains and rapidly rising food prices are dovetailing to create a crisis. Ethiopia is bearing the brunt of the food shortages currently sweeping across east Africa threatening the lives of millions.

In June the government said 4.6 million people in drought-affected parts of the country required £162.5m of assistance, but unofficial estimates from donor agencies following recent nationwide assessments put the figure closer to 8-10 million people.

In West Badawacho, the lushness of the land masks a near total crop failure across the district. More than 90% of the people here are smallholder farmers, surviving on twice-yearly harvests of maize and root crops. For them the poor harvests of 2007 and the repeated failure of the crucial March-May rains have spelled disaster.

Link to this audio
Annie Kelly reports from the hills of West Badawacho, where near starvation and severe malnourishment can be found in practically every village in the district

In recent weeks the rain has arrived but it is too late. While the countryside is transformed into a sea of green, 50% of farmland lies uncultivated. So many livestock died in the recent drought that farmers are struggling to plant maize by hand. For those who have managed to get a crop down, it won’t be harvested until September, and then production is expected to be low.

Increasingly concerned about the situation, Save the Children UK took the Guardian to visit its emergency nutrition programmes in West Badawacho. For the past three or four months, many families here have resorted to living on the roots of the “false banana” tree. When boiled the roots create a white and stringy substance that fills the stomach but is largely nutritionally deficient.

At the back of Shirkoe Feranje’s thatched-roof house lies a small field of young maize that he has managed to plant in the last few weeks. Behind that his other patch of land lies bare.

“We started planting when the rains were supposed to come in March but then it never rained, so all the seeds rotted,” said the father of six. “My ox died because I couldn’t feed it and now I can’t plough this land quick enough to plant more maize. I will have to sell everything off to buy food but then I don’t know how I will feed everyone after that.”

Increased rations

As hunger across the country grows, a shortfall in food aid resources and a grain shortage in the country’s strategic reserves have forced the government to reduce the monthly rations it provides to more than 4 million Ethiopians from 15kg to 10kg (33lb to 22lb) per month per person.

Feranje says the rations stop his family from starving, but that their monthly supplies last a few days at most. “We’re worried what will happen if the rations go down any further,” he says. “Without that we’re in God’s hands.”

The farmer says he is often too weak to work and his son Daniel is seriously ill from hunger. The black swelling that marked third-stage oedema in the 15-year-old’s face and legs has subsided after treatment in a stabilisation centre, revealing his skeletal frame.

A few miles away Teshfana Elias, a 20-year-old community health worker in the village of Keshera, is helping run an emergency nutrition intervention being implemented by Save the Children UK.

She watches as the grass outside her Outpatient Treatment Programme, one of 10 in the district, fills with mothers and children waiting to receive emergency nutrition supplements.

Even though the programme means the most severely malnourished children in the area are being given help, she is worried about the coming months.

“This is the most desperate situation I have ever seen,” she says. “You can see that many people here are very ill from food shortages. Those most severely affected children are now getting help, but the number of malnourished children is growing all the time and this is a real concern.

“Many babies have already died here and I think many more will die in the months to come. Not only children but also adults are becoming very weak. Nobody has anything to eat at all.”

But Soloman Tesfaye, project leader for the Save the Children in West Badawacho, says the emergency measures put in place in the district over the past two months have managed to stabilise what was becoming a critical situation. “There have been vast improvements made here, especially when you consider that this year we are facing a myriad of problems that is making the situation very difficult to handle.”

He says that the “unbelievable” rise in food prices is the one big factor that marks this year out from previous droughts the country has suffered.

The World Food Programme (WFP) has calculated that across Ethiopia the price of maize has increased by 100% and wheat by 40% since the end of last year, with prices set to keep rising.

Recent price hikes mean that after the crops failed again earlier this year, families are now unable to afford to buy the staple foods they need to keep going. “It’s simple economics. People don’t have enough money to buy the food they need,” says Tesfaye.

People in West Badawacho say there is no other way for them to make a living. Many have sold what livestock or land they have left to buy food.

Extreme measures

It’s a situation rapidly unfolding for millions across Ethiopia as food shortages increase. The UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Ethiopia warns that the country is facing “critical challenges” with its current food insecurity, and that those living in drought-affected areas are resorting to extreme measures including slaughtering animals, eating seeds meant for planting and migrating from their homes.

In July the same UN office identified new hunger “hot spots” in Afar, Amhara, Tigray and the Somali region, where the problem is particularly severe. Aid workers say they are fire fighting rather than tackling the root causes of the food shortages.

In West Badawacho there is hope that harvests in September will bring some respite to those who have already endured months of hunger. But for those who have no maize plants swaying in the green fields, the January rains are a long way off. If they come at all.

Source: The Guardian
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