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War + Famine = Catastrophe in Africa

When fighting broke out almost two years ago between Ethiopia and Eritrea it was not all that difficult to imagine the hardship that would result. Combine the fighting with severe drought in the region and you get a catastrophe in the making.

The United States, the European Union and other nations around the world have made some emergency food aid shipments already and have started making plans for longer term relief.

Conditions in southern Ethiopia are extremely close to conditions we would refer to as a famine, says Hugh Parmer, Assistant Administrator of USAID, who recently surveyed the area. Now only the children and elderly are dying, Parmer says, in the rest of the region you don't see famine, but it could come if food aid is interrupted.

As a result of his trip, Parmer ordered some 80,000 metric tons of emergency food aid to be delivered to the area around Gode in southern Ethiopia. The United States has pledged at least 500,000 metric tons of aid, the EU another 430,000 metric tons. Still, says Parmer, about 25 percent of the basic need has yet to be filled.

In the best of times it's not easy to get such food deliveries to the small villages where they are needed. Add a shooting war to the mix and it only compounds the delivery problem.

And Ethiopia and its neighbor Eritrea have been engaged in a war over disputed territory on their border since May 1998.

One U.S. official says it's been a bloody and costly conflict so far in terms of casualties. Exact numbers are difficult to come by, but this official says tens of thousands have been killed on both sides.

The Eritrean port of Assab is preferred for bulk deliveries of food aid, but it's not certain that Ethiopian government officials will permit the aid to be trans-shipped from there to areas inside Ethiopia which are desperate for it. There are also major problems with the roads over which the aid would have to go and with finding enough trucks to handle hundreds of thousands of tons of food.

Just as there are efforts to bring food to the starving, there are also plans among political leaders to broker a peace. Former National Security Advisor Anthony Lake and Assistant Secretary of State Susan Rice have led U.S. diplomatic efforts. The Organization for African Unity has its own negotiator who is hoping to sponsor talks between the two countries in Algiers later this month.

In the meantime the drought continues, aid is trickling in but one thing is clear: it will not be soon enough for some.

By Charles Wolfson

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