The Seeds of Famine
Washington Post- Monday,April 24, 2000
By Karl Vick
NAIROBI –– The good news in Ethiopia is that the bad news is getting out, and fast. In 1984, it took an enterprising television
crew scamming travel permits and charming recalcitrant officials to expose a famine already so far along that not even the
largest international humanitarian intervention ever could save a million people from perishing.
That catastrophe inspired an overlapping series of early warning systems, which sounded the alarm for the new food crisis that
again poses a risk to 8 million Ethiopians. Satellite photos were laid over crop yield statistics. Cattle prices lined up with rainfall
statistics. And nine months before the first images of human skeletons were beamed out of Ethiopia's Ogaden region this spring, the monthly bulletin of the Famine Early Warning System carried the headline "Deteriorating Food Security in the Horn of Africa."
Now, as relief officials get down to the frantic business of averting what has been forecast, the most pressing question is this:
Will the prosperous West provide the hundreds of millions of dollars for emergency relief in time?
After a week-long tour of affected areas in Ethiopia, Eritrea and northern Kenya, U.N. envoy Catherine Bertini said the West's
response so far "is absolutely nowhere what we need."
A second question, hovering in the background, follows logically enough: Why is this happening again?
The answer, according to observers of the region, lies in a complicated mix of weather cycles, inefficient farming practices,
rapid population growth and a war that discourages international aid.
The Horn of Africa is a powerfully dry place, prone to cyclical droughts that appear to be more and more frequent, each time
further debilitating a population given less time to recover from the previous shock.
"The major factor is drought," said Teshome Erkineh of Ethiopia's Disaster Preparedness and Prevention Commission, which
broadcast its first appeals for help 16 months ago.
The current dry spell, which dates back three years, has been aggravated by the very phenomenon that sent the world's relief
workers scurrying to the other end of Africa a month ago: La Nina. If not for the global weather disturbance centered in the
South Pacific, the very rains that caused such devastating floods in Mozambique likely would have drenched Africa's parched
"Those were supposed to be our rains," said a relief official based in Ethiopia, the hardest-hit country in a region where the
United Nations estimates 16 million people are at risk.
The drought comes as Ethiopia is trying to feed ever more mouths without modernizing its farming techniques.
"You've got a rising population and a fairly stagnant level of agricultural production," said Robin Wheeler, an official in the U.N.
World Food Program's Horn of Africa office. Despite one banner year when Ethiopia actually exported surplus food, overall
yields have not kept pace with a population that has grown by 50 percent since 1984, to 63 million.
Across the Horn, agricultural techniques remain medieval. With irrigation a rarity, more than 90 percent of farming in Ethiopia
depends entirely on rainfall. Erosion is so bad that in an average year 2 billion tons of the nation's topsoil are blown away by
wind, food scientists say.
But even if yields were doubled--a feat that could be achieved in the nation's southwestern breadbasket, experts say--Ethiopia
can never expect to thrive with 85 percent of its population working the fields. Only by increased industrialization and the
creation of new wealth that could be used to buy food will the country be able to feed its people, experts say.
"You have seen the landscape around here?" asked Jean-Luc Francois, a French diplomat, as he surveyed the scrub and dust
of the Ogaden. "What can be done? Join the towns and the villages; don't try to maintain so many people in rural areas. There
is no example in the world of so many people being supported by agriculture."
Aid agencies worked to nudge the government in that direction throughout the 1990s. Ethiopia is home to the World Food
Program's largest African development program, which simultaneously focuses on water use, infrastructure, education and
agriculture policy to outflank future famines. But an aid official complained that, while the United Nations has continued full
funding, European donors have backed away from Ethiopia since it began a border war with Eritrea in 1998. The World Bank
suspended all new programs in September.
"They're not going to make any huge outlays for long-term solutions to a country at war," the official said.
Meanwhile, in offices from Nairobi to Washington, experts watched the components of a new food crisis come together on
their computer screens.
At the Famine Early Warning System, a $7 million annual program funded entirely by the United States, the Meteosat weather
satellite was showing an ever depleting cold cloud cover associated with rainfall. The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration satellite that registers photosynthesis documented growing seasons that weren't. The data, combined with crop price reports and other information from the ground, spelled trouble.
Nick Maunder, the Briton who heads the early warning system office in Nairobi, said a more localized--or simply
shorter--crisis might have been manageable.
"At the start, the equation was, see a big problem, put in food aid. Now the emphasis has become, see a big problem, avert it,"
Maunder said. "If you do something simple like de-worming livestock, it can help them survive another two or three months."
But the drought was proving too big to head off. At the Drought Monitoring Center in Nairobi, a consortium established by
African governments after the 1984 catastrophe, dire reports piled up from northern Uganda to northern Eritrea. Across town
at the World Food Program's regional office, specialists in a unit called Vulnerability Analysis and Mapping punched in all the
components, then added the data that described the challenges of actually delivering food: port capacity, road conditions and,
not least, security incidents. The Ogaden area--hardest hit so far--is off-limits to U.N. international staff because of roaming
bandits and a history of kidnappings.
Today, the "vulnerability map" reaches well beyond Ethiopia's southeast, lapping into Somalia and across Kenya's arid north
into Sudan. The largest population centers are in Ethiopia, however, and if the April rains don't arrive there, "we're getting close to worst-case," Wheeler said.
"It's going to tip in different ways," said Hannah Williams of the London-based relief agency Christian Aid, as she waited for a
flight out of Ogaden. "It's not going to be everywhere like here, nomads dying after walking for days.
"In Konso, they're dying of malaria after not eating for a week. In Awash, they're killing each other over wells. In Tigray,
they're slowly selling bits of their houses for firewood."
Among donors, the United States has led the way, promptly fulfilling its earlier pledges and dispatching emergency airlifts as the
situation worsened. But the World Food Program, which aims to meet a fraction of the region's needs, has pledges to take it
only through July, said Bertini. Meanwhile, UNICEF has issued an appeal to fund the clean water and medicine that, after food, will save the most lives.
"When a crisis hits, you can access huge amounts of money," said Maunder, the early warning expert. "But six months ago, if
you'd tried to access $100,000 for water development, you'd have had a hard time.
"We're filling in the gaps in the bad years, and those bad years are growing increasingly frequent. But we're not offering them
long-term solutions to get them out of this trap."
© 2000 The Washington Post Company