20 Years Later, Ethiopia Faces New Famine

Six year old malnourished Tariken Lakamu waits for food aid in the southern Ethiopian town of Shashamane. This year's food crisis, brought on by a countrywide drought and skyrocketing global food prices, is far less severe, with an estimated 4.5 million people nationwide in need of emergency food aid. AP

Like so many other victims of Ethiopia's hunger crisis, Usheto Beriso weighs just half what he should. He is always cold and swaddled in a blanket. His limbs are stick-thin.

But Usheto is not the typical face of Ethiopia's chronic food problems, the scrawny baby or the ailing toddler. At 55 years old, he is among a growing number of adults and older children - traditionally less vulnerable groups - who have been stricken by severe hunger due to poor rains and recent crop failure in southern Ethiopia, health workers say.

"To see adults in this condition, it's a very serious situation," nurse Mieke Steenssens, a volunteer with Doctors Without Borders, told The Associated Press as she registered the 5'4" Usheto's weight at just 73 pounds.

Aid groups say the older victims suggest an escalation in the crisis in Ethiopia, a country that drew international attention in 1984 when a famine compounded by communist policies killed some 1 million people.

This year's crisis, brought on by a countrywide drought and skyrocketing global food prices, is far less severe. But while figures for how many adults and older children are affected are not available, at least four aid groups interviewed by the AP said they noticed a troubling increase.

"We're overwhelmed," said Margaret Aguirre, a spokeswoman for the International Medical Corps, a California-based aid agency. "There's not enough food and everyone's starving and that's all there is to it."

"Older children are starting to show the signs of malnutrition when normally they might be able to withstand shocks to the system," Aguirre added. "What's particularly concerning is that the moderately malnourished are soaring. It's increasing so much that it means those children are going to slide into severe malnutrition."

Ethiopia is not alone in suffering through the worldwide food crisis, which is threatening to push up to a billion people across the globe into hunger. Last week, a U.N. summit of 181 countries pledged to reduce trade barriers and boost agricultural production to combat rising food prices.

Drought is especially disastrous in Ethiopia because more than 80 percent of people live off the land. Agriculture drives the economy, accounting for half of all domestic production and 85 percent of exports.

The U.N. children's agency has characterized this year's food shortage - in which an estimated 4.5 million people are in need of emergency food aid - as the worst since 2003, when droughts led 13.2 million people to seek such aid. In 2000, more than 10 million needed emergency food.

Studies by the International Medical Corps in southern Ethiopia - the epicenter of the crisis - show that up to one in four young mothers is showing signs of moderate malnutrition.

Ethiopia's top disaster response official, Simon Mechale, insists that the food situation is "under control" and will be resolved within four months. But in the countryside, there are signs that drought has taken a more serious toll.

At a recent food distribution in a village some 155 miles southwest of the capital, more than 4,000 people showed up for free wheat and cooking oil, but only 1,300 rations were available.

Harried health workers picked through the impatient crowd, sorting out the sickest children. Frantic mothers proffered their withered infants, hoping the children's poor state would earn some food for the family.

Ayelech Daka said her 6-year-old son, Tariken Lakamu, has been living on one meal a day for the past three months.

"He was very fat three months ago," said his mother, Ayelech said. "He was normal."

Now, he's a pile of bones and skin; he vomits just seconds after taking a bite of a biscuit offered by an aid worker.

"I'm weak," the child said. "I feel sick. I don't get any food."

Another mother, Ukume Dubancho, rocked a listless infant, trying to squeeze out drops of breast milk for her children, ages 4 months and 4 years, both of whom show signs of severe malnutrition.

"I am not able to walk, even," Ukume said. "I walk for one kilometer and I have to rest."

Villagers said they can't afford the food on the market. The few mature ears of corn in the market were selling for about 11 cents per ear. Last year, when the rains were good, that money would buy six or seven ears of corn.

Aid agencies are issuing desperate appeals for donor funding, saying emergency intervention is not enough. Ethiopia receives more food aid than nearly every other country in the world, most of it from the United States, which has provided $300 million in emergency assistance to relief agencies in the past year.

But despite the international help, the country is again facing hunger on a mass scale. Part of the reason, according to John Holmes, the top U.N. humanitarian official, is the country's climate, chronic drought and the large population - some 78 million people. He said the U.N. was hoping to boost the number of people it helps here.

"The World Food Program feeds some 8 million people already, together with the others in Ethiopia," he said. "But we may need to increase that, because of drought."
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