April 17, 2000


Ethiopian Hunger: Another Disaster Ahead?


New York Times- April 17, 2000





GODE, Ethiopia, April 16 -- The truly hungry are still the exception, but that makes little difference here. This morning, a 2-year-old boy named Abdi Muhammad Farah died. An old woman covered a hole in the hut with a dirty pair of pants so the other children could not spy in as they washed his body. He was very thin, so there was not much to wash.


"Be off!" another woman shouted at the children. They scattered but only for a moment. Abdi is the fourth child of Muhammad Farah -- who has 10 children, by two wives -- to have died in the last three months here in the hot southeastern corner of Ethiopia, where once again chronic poverty and the worst drought to hit the Horn of Africa in nearly two decades have combined to create hunger, and war has hampered its solution. So too, Ethiopia's leaders argue, lives might have been saved ifthe outside world had been quicker to help.


But no one is calling it a famine yet. And what has already happened here, everyone hopes, will be as bad as it gets, though there are no guarantees.


In the last few days the world's rich nations have pledged what experts say should be enough food to stave off a far greater disaster: at least eight million Ethiopians face a food shortage, the same number affected in the famine of the mid-1980's that killed hundreds of thousands of people. Six to eight million more in neighboring countries -- Eritrea, Somalia, Sudan, Djibouti, Kenya and Uganda -- also face hunger.


But much could still go wrong. The next rains may fail. Relief food may not arrive on time. The war between Ethiopia and Eritrea may ignite again. And so relief officials are urging a worldwide effort to keep Ethiopia flooded with food, rapidly.


"It could be a big problem," said Catherine Bertini, head of the World Food Program and a United Nations envoy to the Horn of Africa. "We want to make sure it is not a big problem.


 "This does need to be done very quickly," she added.


Famine announces itself long before arriving, in small pockets that foretell greater disaster and, when local governments and the rest of the world are engaged, with enough time to prevent it. The area around Gode, 750 miles southeast of Addis Ababa, the capital, is where the messengers of widespread hunger made their first call.


It has not rained here in three years, but the problems reached the point of crisis only recently. Local authorities say more than 200 people have died of malnutrition in the last three months around this town, dusty and scattered with the carcasses of hundreds of cows and sheep. Another 500 have died from causes related to hunger, like pneumonia, diarrhea or measles. Almost all the dead are children, the first to fall sick without food.


Abdi Ali is 1 year old, so thin and weak he can barely push out a cry, and what happened to him and his family tells the story of many people here. Like most people in the Ogaden region of Ethiopia, his family members are nomads of Somali origin who depend on cows, goats and camels for food and milk.


Adbi's mother, Hani, a 30-year-old mother of six children, said the family's 200 goats and 60 cattle began to die late last year for lack of water and grazing land. When the last died, in January, the family walked to the town of Denan, about 30 miles north of here.


Now there are 6,000 refugees in Denan, another 15,000 in Gode. Abdi was fine when they arrived, his mother said, but since then he has slowly withered for lack of food. His top front teeth are just coming in, but otherwise, he is not growing but shrinking inside his ever-baggier skin. When we had cattle, he was drinking milk," she said. "Now we have no cattle, and he has no milk."


While children have been the hardest hit, adults are suffering too. Four days before, Mariama Mose, 35, stopped speaking, and on Saturday she lay with her eyes staring up at the top of their hut in Denan. One of her nine children, a 1-year-old boy, Wali Abdi, died last month. Her husband, Abdi Sheik Hussein, said that she had not eaten for many days, and that he did not know whether she would live either. "Only Allah knows," he said.


Outside the huts, there were the mounds of at least 250 graves, some small for children, most covered with thorn bushes to keep away the hyenas and foxes, as hungry as the people.


There has been much contention between Ethiopia and outside nations about whether its government has done enough to help its starving people. Most of the focus has been on the money spent on Ethiopia's two-year war with its neighbor, Eritrea, which experts say costs roughly $1 million a day. Because of the war, Ethiopia has refused an offer to use the port of Assab in Eritrea, which United Nations officials say would speed up the delivery of food.


But here, the government did deliver food, most of it wheat, in January, February and early March, said Muhammad Ugas, the area manager for a local charity group, the Ogaden Welfare Society, which has headed the relief effort here. But it was not enough, he said, and there were no international groups to help either.


By late February, the crisis had grown and the Ogaden Welfare Society, along with Save the Children, an international charity group, opened up the first feeding center in Gode for the worst cases. By today, 280 children had been treated; 28 of them, or 10 percent, had died. The last one was Abdi Muhammad Farah, who was buried this afternoon in a grave next to his sister's.


 Even as Ethiopia has been criticized, its leaders have in return harshly condemned the outside world for not reacting fast enough, particularly after an assessment in December showed that 7.8 million people were facing food shortages. Although the United States responded with large donations of food in January, Ethiopian officials particularly criticized the European Union for not making a concrete pledge.


Karl Harbo, the European Union's delegate in Ethiopia, strongly denied that there had been a delay, saying the Europeans began to buy food from other areas of Ethiopia in February but backed off after the government said there was very little food to buy.  


Nonetheless, the European Union finally committed last week to a hard number of 430,000 tons of food by the end of the year -- just as Ms. Bertini began her visit to the region and the world's news media beamed out images of the people around Gode who had begun to starve.


Ms. Bertini and many other Western officials say they believe that the outside world did react promptly -- at least before the severe food shortages moved into actual famine not only here but in the highlands in northern Ethiopia, also suffering from drought. "It's not because there has been a slow response," she said. "It is because there are more people to feed."


By the end of her trip, Ethiopia's prime minister, Meles Zenawi, who had strongly criticized the West, said he too was satisfied. "Now all the indications are that the food aid which will avert disaster may be forthcoming," he said in a news conference last week.


Just as famine follows a more or less predictable cycle, so too does the institutional strategy for overcoming it. Ms. Bertini's trip was meant to spur the outside world to action. Coming as it did when people here began to die, her appeal seems to have brought results: aid groups are coming slowly but in greater numbers.


Still, any comparison to the famine that began in 1984 is premature. Dr. J. W. Lee, the medical representative on Ms. Bertini's trip, noted that most of the deaths in the Gode region were not from hunger specifically. Although the suffering people need food, he said, many are in greater need of medicine, clean water and vaccinations. "The situation is precarious, but its not catastrophic," Dr. Lee said. "A lot of people are talking about this from television images and sound bites, not data."


 The fear, though, is that it could get worse. The major worry, officials say, is that the long rains this summer will fail. Moreover, the food pledged so far will feed Ethiopia only through June, World Food Program officials say. With a lag of two to five months between a nation's pledge of food and its delivery -- over terrible roads and through inadequate ports -- the concern is keeping what aid officials call the "food pipeline" full.


"The promise is adequate," said Mr. Ugas, of the Ogaden Welfare Society. "It depends on how quick and urgently it reaches here."