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Ethiopia: UN Relief Organization Tries To Avert Famine

As the drought in the Horn of Africa threatens millions with famine, relief agencies are rushing aid to the area. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel speaks with the UN World Food Program about the crisis.

Prague, 19 April 2000 (RFE/RL) -- The prolonged drought in the Horn of Africa has put up to 16 million people at risk of famine, half of them in Ethiopia.

RFE/RL spoke by telephone with Roberta Rossi, a spokesperson for the UN World Food Program in Ethiopia's capital, Addis Ababa. She works with relief programs in southeast Ethiopia, known as the "Somali region," which is one of the worst affected areas.

Rossi said there has not been significant rainfall in the region for four years, causing desperate shortages of food and drinking water today.

"We feel we are definitely trying to avert a famine. There are a large number of people who are affected by this drought [and] the biggest intervention need, besides ongoing food [aid], is water. Some of the UN agencies and NGOs are recruiting water engineers for digging new wells and water holes, so that is definitely the biggest consideration right now. In that region, the Somali region, there has not been a significant rainfall in over four years."

Rossi said it is difficult to know how many have died in the drought so far.

"It is very difficult for us to know exactly because this is a nomadic region, they are pastoralists, they move a lot. So in some of the areas, some of the towns -- very small towns, even villages -- there are no hospitals, so it is very hard for us to get an accurate picture of what is happening. But we do see a lot of children coming in [who are] in stages of acute malnutrition, and also they are very ill from the tainted water that they are finding. Some of the bore holes, or the wells, have now completely become salinated, so they are drinking the salt water. And because of that a lot of the children are in very serious, critical condition and even dying from malnutrition-related causes such as upper respiratory infections, measles, tuberculosis, diarrhea. And all this is affecting them so much because they are very vulnerable in such a weakened state from not having enough food."

She continued:

"The numbers [of deaths] that we are hearing are in the hundreds, but you have to understand that we are talking a lot about children under the age of 5. And because [the people] are nomadic, in some cases to get close to where there is water or food distribution, they have been walking five, seven, we have even heard of 20 days. When we did an assessment in November and December, we estimated that 1.3 million people in the Somali region would need food assistance. But we see that that number has probably increased [since then] ... It is difficult to know where [these drought-affected nomadic people] are at any given time, but as they are coming closer to the towns, we are seeing that the numbers are much higher than we estimated."

The World Food Program spokesperson said that increasing amounts of aid are now coming to the region, much of it prompted by the extensive media coverage of the crisis over the past weeks.

"The media attention [which has been] focused on this area is helping in the sense that there are a lot of interventions which just have happened overnight. ICRC (International Commission of the Red Cross) is sending in a planeload of high-energy biscuits every day for the next two months. The other NGOs and contributions have just been coming in. [The] WFP has just airlifted down some high-energy biscuits that were given us by the U.S. government as well as oil. I definitely think that the interventions are increasing."

However, the costs of providing enough food to see people through the crisis until next year's rainy season are dauntingly high. Rossi says:

"The WFP emergency operation that we appealed for at the end of January is valued at $136.8 million and we know that we are going to have to increase that. And that is to assist 2.3 million people with 250,000 metric tons of food assistance, cereal basically, and supplementary food. So it is quite a lot, and the [Ethiopian] government appeal itself is for more than 800,000 metric tons."

She says that experts estimate that for the entire drought-affected area of the Horn of Africa, some 1 million metric tons of food will be needed.

But reaching those most in need of aid remains a problem. Rossi said that because the Somali region is inhabited mostly by nomadic clans with little central government control, security for aid workers is a problem.

"In the Somali region, what also makes it difficult is that it is insecure. UN staff do not spend the night there ... we work through our local NGO called the Ogaden Welfare Society, and it is through them that many of the donors are working. Also, the roads are very inaccessible there, it is lacking in infrastructure, so those are the challenges we face in that area. For us it is a priority to get the distributions as close to the people as possible, because it is in that stretch, when they are walking from wherever to a place where there is a distribution, that they become so weakened so that by the time they get there, already their health has deteriorated so much."

Bringing large quantities of food to the region by ship is difficult because of another regional problem -- the ongoing hostility between Ethiopia and neighboring Eritrea. Ethiopia has no outlet to the sea, and the Ethiopian government recently refused a UN request to ship food through the Eritrean port of Assab.

That refusal has forced the world body to switch to a port south of Eritrea, in Djibouti. But to increase the Djibouti port's ability to handle the thousands of tons of wheat which must be delivered, the UN will first have to spend close to $3 million rehabilitating the port's facilities.