Looking into a Famine Crisis - Analysis
By Our Staff Reporter
In April 1999 the failure of the small or ‘Belg’ rains and lack of food distribution had created a crisis. Farmers in the highlands
of the North were migrating in search of food while their livestock perished by the thousands. The government and donors
recognized the seriousness of the situation and pulled together a response that averted a crisis.
This year the unfolding of the crisis has been different. Lessons had been learned. The government, donors and NGO’s worked diligently to identify the extent of the problem from the inadequate rain in 1999, and gave early warning of the crisis emerging in the South. By January 2000, all of the donors had been informed and the local offices agreed to the numbers of people needing assistance, where they were, and how much they needed.
Then everyone waited for head offices. New pledges were slow to emerge. The preparedness of Ethiopia was met with a
deafening silence from the world.
Finally the rapid deterioration of conditions in the South, particularly in the Ogaden area of Somali Region, brought attention to
the crisis. By March people and livestock were dying. Media images of the starving were broadcasted to the world.
The first to respond was the United States in March. A high level visit resulted in a massive pledge of 400,000 metric tons
(260,000 for the emergency). The World Food Program (WFP) has followed suit with a campaign for donations and a high
level visit. To give them credit, the WFP has been calling for a response for weeks, with very little reaction from member
countries. Now the pledges have started to roll in from Japan, Canada, Holland, United Kingdom, Spain and others.
This reaction is already too late. During a crisis food is pledged but takes months to arrive.
Every year there is a crucial problem of pledged food arriving late so the Emergency Food Security Reserve (EFSR) was set
up. With this, reserve food is on hand and can be ‘borrowed’ as soon as a pledge is received, for immediate distribution. Those few months of time saved are critical.
Last year the EFSR headed off a major crisis. Donors had reacted late, but the food security reserve was large enough so that
food could be distributed immediately. Thousands of lives were saved.
This year the EFSR is almost empty. Unfortunately many of the generous pledges made last year have still not been replenished. Replenishment to the EFSR is contracted to take place within 3 months – replenishment that are up to 9 months old have still not been done!
If they had been done during the course of the year, then the stocks would now be available to deal with the crisis. The normal
level for the EFSR is 310,000 metric tons (with an agreed plan to increase it to 400,000 metric tons by this year), which would
have been enough to bridge the crisis until new stocks arrive.
Now that the need to respond is accepted and the donors are moving into action, the impact of previous inaction is being felt.
The loans taken by donors from the EFSR last year are being repaid, but too late to deal with the immediate crisis.
The biggest offenders are the biggest donors – the US, the EU and the WFP. Ironically, these organizations were actively
involved in the formation and contributions to establish the EFSR in the first place.
The EU is announcing that 30,000 metric tons is arriving this week in response to the crisis. That food is a repayment of a loan
of food pledged last year, and announced with great fanfare!! It is months late! That is hardly an occasion for self-congratulation. The same applies to the 86,000 metric tons, which the US is landing in Djibouti at the end of April, and the
repayments, which the WFP is making this month.
Why not admit that they made a mistake and make sure it doesn’t happen in future?
The late repayment also has the even more serious negative impact of congesting the ports just as the new food pledges should
be arriving. This may well delay the delivery of sufficient food to pre-position before the main rains start in July, threatening to
cut off remote areas from receiving food during their most critical time.
How ironic to hear the donors who are only now paying back their loans complaining about port congestion and transport
shortages. These problems don’t exist right now because the food is so late. These problems will occur in the near future,
worsened because the donors neglected to pay back their previous pledges in a timely way.
This also makes the hand wringing of donors about the non-availability of Assab port particularly obnoxious. ‘If only the war
wasn’t in the way’, they moan. There is no doubt that the war is a bad thing, and it would be better if it was over, but to blame
it for the current crisis is absurd. The rains didn’t come. The donors didn’t replenish what they promised they will do. There is
no food to bridge the crisis. Now it will be a miracle if the country comes through without major loss of life due to hunger.
There has been a good effort to increase the capacity of the port of Djibouti in the last year (right now it is underutilized) and to
ensure that other ports – Berbera in Somaliland, Port Sudan in Sudan, and even Mombassa in Kenya, are available to receive
food. Assab is impossible. Anyone who knows the war situation in Ethiopia and the bitterness between the two countries
knows that. Apart from anything else, Ethiopians would be afraid to eat any food that had passed through Assab.
It is now conceivable that the crisis will be managed in the critical Somali area, although food is still arriving too slowly and there are limits to what can be done about water shortages. For the many who have died it is already obviously too late. The needs in the North will reach a critical stage at the end of June – can enough food be moved in to pre-position in remote areas before the heavy rains normally start in July?
The rapidly developing international response now looks likely to result in enough food – 300-400,000 metric tons, arriving in
Djibouti before the end of June. The long haul trucks to move the food from Djibouti to the main warehouses could be a
problem, but experts say that the capacity for long haul trucking in Ethiopia has increased greatly in the last year. The biggest
challenge will be the short haul trucks to move food from the main warehouses out to the distribution sites. Are there going to
The race against time continues.