– Awassa, southern Ethiopia
“She is seven years old”, said Matiwos Kambata to this reporter. Incredulity would be the most apt response, were it not for the fact that his little sister Regisa, who looks no more than three years of age, is among the hundreds of thousands whose lives are in jeopardy as Ethiopia suffers another life-destroying drought. The darkening clouds – the wrong ones – of drought and hunger again stalk the countryside, while the much-needed rainbearers remain elusive, aloof as some capricious deity in the sky and oblivious to Regisa and the hundreds of thousands of severely-malnourished children below.
When drought and food shortages hit, it is the very young who suffer first, and most. The stabilisation clinic at Galla Wacho, about 40 kilometers from the regional capital Awassa, where Matiwos and Regisa have stayed for a week, to allow the medics there carefully oversee what all hope to be the first step in her recovery, usually caters for under-fives, rather than older children.
A crisis spreading? Perhaps. Sitting alongside Regisa is Benetu: listless, emaciated, unable to walk due to a combination of hunger and illness, but at twelve years old a fearful indication that as the drought takes its toll, the crisis threatens to spread to older and stronger age groups.
In this southwestern Sidama region, one of a number of zones hardest-hit, maize and enset (also known as false banana) crops have failed, or are in the death-throes, as the rains around which the planting seasons are arranged fail to fall, one after another, leading one aidworker, requesting anonymity, to suggest that “with this next harvest almost certain to fail, the food shortages will run into late this year or even early 2009. The people here have no food. Even if it rains now, it could be too late, and of the rain is too heavy, it could spoil any maize that has only been planted in the past few weeks”
This is a vast and ancient land, where Christianity prevailed at least century before St. Patrick faced down the Irish druids, and where in 1896, the Ethiopians inflicted the first military loss on a European power by an African army, when the invading Italians were rebuffed at Adwa. But now Ethiopia’s history is, at first glance, repeating itself.
Historian Richard Pankhurst once wrote that famine hit this country at least every decade between the fifteenth and nineteenth centuries. It is now almost a cliché to remind readers of Michael Buerk’s quasi-iconic seven minute BBC voiceover from the dying fields at Korem, in the north of Ethiopia, at the height of the 1984 famine, which triggered an unparalleled outpouring of western sympathy and Live Aid. For those unable to digest yet another skeletal child and “give what you can” story from Ethiopia, it is worth noting that there is more to these latest woes than just localised drought and crop failures.
To paraphrase, its partly the economy, stupid. Rising world food and energy prices mean that not only people across the country being squeezed, aid agencies are struggling to meet needs. All in all 73 million people across 78 countries need food assistance, while traditional food-exporter countries such as Zimbabwe and Burma have been turned into economic basket-cases by their tyrant rulers, narrowing the global food supply.
In Ethiopia itself, food prices have risen by 40 percent in the past year, according to the country’s Central Statistical Agency, but some staples have risen much faster. A kilogramme of wheat that cost 2.25 birr ($0.23) has reached 6.50 birr ($0.68). The urban poor in Addis Ababa and elsewhere are feeling the pinch, reflecting what World Bank President Robert Zoellick told reporters back in March: “In some countries, hard-won gains in overcoming poverty may now be reversed.”
All told, this drought has affected 4.6 million people, in various regions across Ethiopia, and also means that aid agencies cannot buy food on local markets, while rocketing global food prices have stretched and pinched budgets. Paulette Jones is the Public Information Officer at the UN World Food Programme in Addis Ababa. She told this newspaper that “we cannot procure food locally anymore as in-country food stocks are low, as are UN emergency stocks”. Policy options are further narrowed by the falling dollar and rising oil prices “we can procure abroad, but we get much less bang for our buck given hat oil is so expensive, making shipping costs a greater part of our overheads.”
Looming in the background are some thorny regional politics. A recent Eritrea-Djibouti border skirmish raised hairs on the back of local necks, as an all-out conflict between the two would almost close the door on imports into Ethiopia, which relies on Djibouti for access to the sea. Given that Ethiopia’s other neighbours are conflict-wracked Somalia and Sudan – with Ethiopian troops in Mogadishu, aiming to keep Islamist militants from retaking control of that city – it is clear that the regional political context is as unfavourable as the global economic squeeze.
But it is Regisa, Benetu and the hundreds of thousands of other young children whose lives are most at risk. “Benetu needs food, but she is so sick now that she cannot take any”, says her distraught father, Cheru. Time is so short for so many, the WFP might not be able to get sufficient replacement foodstocks in before August, and as spokeswoman Jones says, appealing to donor nations, “this problem needs resources, and now.”Show