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Thousands face death as drought sweeps Ethiopia

by Staff Writers
Rophi, Ethiopia (AFP) May 20, 2008
Seven-year-old Hirpo Amani sits propped against his mother with only a glimmer of life left in his sunken eyes, one of thousands of children facing death from a drought that is ravaging Ethiopia.

"My child has been sick for the last two weeks and is on the verge of death," says his mother, Ayantu Itissa, who lives in Rophi, around 370 kilometres (230 miles) south of the capital Addis Ababa.

"I have already lost four children from mysterious illnesses," she says.

A severe and unexpected drought has sown devastation in the Oromiya region, bringing back dark memories of the 1984 famine that brought the Horn of Africa nation to its knees and shocked the world.

With 80 million inhabitants, Ethiopia is Africa's second most populated country and the UN's children fund warned on Tuesday that 3.4 million people were in need of food aid.

Almost twice as many children are at risk of malnutrition, UNICEF also said in a statement, appealing for emergency funds to alleviate the effects of the drought, which is fast spreading across the country.

Driving down from Addis Ababa, the devastation caused by lack of water is visible as the patches of green flanking the road start being replaced by dried up scrubs and cattle carcasses.

"This situation is mostly unknown in some of these areas, they are known for surplus food production," says Abebe Megerssa, an official from the Ethiopian health ministry.

"This time was a time for harvest, the rain delays affected the area."

In Rophi, a small scattering of thatched huts, an aid camp is attracting a growing number of families. More than 200 children cradled by their mothers are waiting for special UNICEF rations in five makeshift tents.

There were only 42 children when the camp opened last month.

"Everyday, newcomers are increasing but the tents are not enough and we lack medicine and manpower," says Father Yohannes Markos, an aid worker from Missionaries for Charity.

"It's like a drop in the ocean, there are children dying in the villages. Their mothers can't cry because they're too hungry."

Volunteers say they've been forced to admit only the most severe cases.

"The situation is very worrying, we've had two deaths this week. It will get much worse if we don't respond," says Albert Vinas, an aid worker from Doctors Without Borders (Medecins Sans Frontieres - MSF).

The outbreak took Ethiopia off-guard as the country was only recently being praised for its efforts in curbing infant mortality rates.

"Ethiopia has made some great gains in curbing child mortality, but they would be completely wiped out by events like this," says Viviane Van Steirteghem, UNICEF's deputy representative.

The World Food Progamme (WFP) is seeking 147 million dollars (94 million euros) to buy the 183,000 metric tons of food needed for the affected populations.

"Obviously there are competing demands (from China and Myanmar) for funding, but what we need in Ethiopia is a substantial amount of money. If the country is not high on the radar screen, it's difficult to draw attention to the situation," says WFP's Lisetta Trebbi.

Soaring commodity prices have just compounded the crisis.

According to the WFP, staples such as maize and sorghum have increased by 83 and 89 percent respectively in less than a year, while wheat has increased by 54 percent in a period between September 2007 and February 2008.

"We have to import food, either from the region or through an international procurement," Trebbi says.

The government has spared no effort in the combat against hunger recently but the scope of the drought sweeping Ethiopia has already belied Health Minister Tewodros Adhanom, who recently said: "No Ethiopian child shall die of preventable causes."

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Six million children threatened by Ethiopia drought: UN
Addis Ababa (AFP) May 20, 2008
A severe drought in Ethiopia threatens up to six million children, the United Nations children's agency warned on Tuesday.

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