Can famine be avoided? The spectre of famine is once again stalking Ethiopia almost 20 years after a million people died in the horrific 1984 tragedy.

Author:Moszynski, Peter
Position:Around Africa: Ethiopia

Drought has once again devastated Ethiopia's food production and another tragedy will only be avoided if massive resources can be mobilised internationally. Georgia Shaver, the World Food Programme director for Ethiopia, points out the scale of the problem:

"In southern Africa, there are 10 to 14 million people needing food aid across six countries. In Ethiopia we could have the same number in just one country. The international effort that will be required to meet the food resources alone is enormous. We need the resources today so that we can prevent a deterioration of the situation. We don't need the resources six months from now when we see terrible images on the television."

In December, Ethiopia's Disaster Prevention and Preparedness Commission (DPPC) launched an emergency appeal, in conjunction with the United Nations. Simon Mechale, head of the DPPC, warned that the harvest is 25% down on previous years and that acute water shortages have already wiped out much of the livestock. "The challenge ahead is not only to make pledges and commitments but also to deliver them as quickly as possible. The emergency situation is real and very serious."

He cautioned that emergency food stocks in the country had reached critically low levels. Although the failure of rains is not uncommon in this harsh climate, this year's drought is more geographically widespread than in previous years and is affecting twice as many people as in 1984 or 2000, the last two major emergencies. These gave Ethiopia significant experience in delivering aid and an advanced famine warning system, so this time round a tragedy can be avoided -- unlike in 1984 when Mengistu's government tried to suppress information rather than appeal for assistance -- but only if the international community takes these appeals seriously.

Some of the worst affected areas are inhabited by pastoralists, particularly in the east of the country. In the Afar region, increasing competition for resources has led to numerous clashes over grazing rights. In January, the UN warned: "In many lowland and pastoral areas of Ethiopia, people have barely enough food to last for even one to two months. Millions of subsistence farmers and herders will soon face a desperate situation."

Although drought has precipitated the crisis -- overall, rainfall was 50% less than normal -- there are also long term structural problems and environmental causes. Launching December's appeal, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi...

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