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Ethiopia's 'green famine' takes its toll

The area's apparent fertility is deceptive. Rains fell at the wrong time, reserves are dwindling and 50 percent of the area's two million inhabitants are facing what aid workers have labelled a "green famine".
by Staff Writers
Sodo, Ethiopia (AFP) Oct 15, 2008
Okume Ochubo's tiny plot of land in southern Ethiopia is lush with waist-high maize sprouts and other crops, but she and her seven young children are struggling to feed themselves.

"We cannot survive without food aid, we collect assistance whenever it is available," she said, as two of her children jostled under the shadows of giant eucalyptus trees.

"We are praying to God for a better situation," the 40-year-old farmer added, her voice barely audible under the breeze of swaying maize leaves.

Okume is one of millions of people in the Horn of Africa nation -- a country with a long history of extreme food shortages -- who are at renewed threat of hunger as a result of failed and delayed rains.

The British charity group Oxfam announced last week that the number of Ethiopians in need of emergency food aid had risen from 4.6 to 6.4 million since June, as rising food prices and drought continued to compound the crisis.

But in Wolaytta district, some 330 kilometres (200 miles) south of Addis Ababa, and most surrounding areas, it is a crisis of a different kind.

The region is known for its diverse crop varieties, and a recent downpour of rain since August has turned the valley into a sea of green.

But the area's apparent fertility is deceptive. Rains fell at the wrong time, reserves are dwindling and 50 percent of the area's two million inhabitants are facing what aid workers have labelled a "green famine".

Prior to that, not a single rain drop fell for eight months, leaving farmers with dwindling food reserves, while plunging the entire region into one of the worst droughts it has ever seen.

"It certainly is one of the worst in Wolaytta's history, probably third to 1984 after 2003," Abraham Asha, representative of the US-based charity group Concern, told AFP.

"Had it not been for the quick response of the government and NGOs, the disaster would not have been averted," he added.

At least a million people died in the 1984 famine, with the then dictator Haile Marian Mengistu accused of concentrating scarce resources on the lengthy conflict along the border with what is now Eritrea, and the 2003 crisis left 14 million Ethiopians in need of food assistance.

The current Ethiopian government under Prime Minister Meles Zenawi has been criticised for spending too much of its budget on the military and not enough on guaranteeing the basic needs of the population.

The authorities also expelled several aid groups operating in the Ogaden region, where government troops have since last year cracked down on a rebellion, further deepening an alarming humanitarian situation there.

At the height of the drought in April, Abraham said hundreds of children in several districts suffered from stunted growth and weight deficit.

The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said up to 12 percent were diagnosed with acute malnutrition in the area at that time.

Experts blame numerous factors for the chronic food insecurity behind the facade of green fields in Wolaytta and the rest of southern Ethiopia.

High population density of up to 800 people per square kilometre and a system of smallholdings have always exerted huge pressure on the land.

"Resources are being exhausted and population is increasing. The region has to take drastic measures such as voluntary resettlement to curb the burden," Abraham said.

Government officials on the other hand, are banking on high yields as a cure for the problem.

"In this district, productivity is far from satisfactory. Farmers here produce only 20 quintals of yield per hectare when other nearby zones produce up to 80," district administrator Hailebirhan Zena told participants in a recent meeting.

"We are focusing on increasing yields through irrigation. It is no secret that Wolaytta lies in proximity to several rivers," he said.

Despite the number of hungry Ethiopians doubling since April and aid agencies reporting a funding shortfall of 260 million dollars (190 million euros), chronic malnutrition has stabilised in the region.

Yet local residents remained pessimistic. The September harvest is thought to be enough to stave off starvation until December but unless reserves last until February, millions will be on the brink again.

"It will happen again as not enough stocks will last until then. It is even expected to be worse next year," Abraham said.

Aid organisations have warned that Ethiopia -- one of Africa's poorest countries and its second most populous -- on the brink of a major famine to that which killed millions in the 1980s.

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