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Facade of normality belies potential disaster

Stock mental images of Ethiopia are challenged continually on a drive through East Hararghe, one of the most severely affected areas in a drought which this week led the UN Country Team to launch a US $47.5 million Relief Action Plan and Appeal.

As you make your way through green countryside, negotiate muddy patches that challenge a four-wheel drive vehicle, pass by villagers tilling fields, carrying firewood, sorting bundles of 'chat' - the leafy narcotic plant grown throughout the district as a cash crop - it is hard to reconcile what you are seeing with the portents of disaster emanating from humanitarian agencies and the government's Disaster Prevention and Preparedness Commission (DPPC). There are none of the images of starving children that sell records and bring pledges of aid flooding in, and the hillsides and valleys present a facade of normal peasant life.

Yet closer analysis reveals chronic problems of agricultural production, food security and malnutrition, a degree of more acute human suffering and a potential humanitarian disaster, due largely to what the DPPC describes as the "complete failure" of the short 'belg' rains due between February and April-May. Beneath the outward appearance lies the fact that most people in East Hararghe and other 'belg' areas harvested nothing in the season just ended and are left without food resources until the main 'meher' season in December.

While the 'belg' harvest supplies just 5 to 7 percent of Ethiopia's national harvest annually, it supplies up to 70 percent of the harvest in heavily 'belg'-dependent pockets, leaving people in those areas without food resources until around May 2000. Long range forecasts predict deficient 'meher' rainfall in eastern Tigray, eastern Amhara and parts of Afar, northern Somali region and the surroundings - all of which are already severely affected by drought. In the worst affected areas - including East Hararghe, South Tigray, Wag Hamra, North and South Wello, and, in the south, Welayita and Konso Special Wereda - the sustained hardship of the past couple of years has forced people to sell off assets and animals, increasing impoverishment and eroding their capacity to cope.

Although successive irregularities in 'meher' and 'belg' rains are considered the major cause of the current food shortages, the areas affected are also the most chronically food insecure in the country. While apparently healthy maize crops are plentiful in East Hararghe and even two weeks of 'meher' rains hold forth the promise of pasture, all is not as it appears. The 'belg' failure has seriously delayed farmers' preparation of the soil, so crops are late and those that have been planted are short-cycle and low-yield, meaning a smaller harvest even if it does deliver.

Many farmers have consumed or lost their grain seeds and been forced to sell tools or oxen, the backbone of peasant agriculture, to buy food. Groundwater resources have not been regenerated so grazing is miserable, cattle carcasses lie in the road and the poor shape of those that have survived attest to the nutritional state of livestock.

But if appearances can sometimes mislead in Hararghe, the picture is terribly clear in North and South Wello, where adults are hungry and children "severely malnourished", and there are disturbing examples of people "with bones sticking through", according to a recently-returned aid worker who spoke to IRIN. In the highlands of that region there are a few stunted crops; in the lowlands there is nothing growing at all.

"Cattle and horses are in a terrible state and people are farming dust and stones," he says. "There's no development going on at all ... people are just surviving - barely."

The situation is also reported to be critical in South Tigray, an inhospitable area "which will never be able to grow enough food for its needs", according to a humanitarian source working in the region. While problems of food production and drought are acknowledged, there is a general feeling that Tigray will cope because it is well organised socially and well connected with the centre of power in Addis Ababa.

At a food distribution site in Gurusum, East Hararghe, those queuing say people have travelled long distances from remote rural areas because there is nothing to eat there, and that others too old and infirm cannot make the journey. "It's better to come to the urban area begging, than to stay hungry in the rural area," says Fatihiye Borale, a woman from Gurusum district who is dry-nursing a young, malnourished baby but has to mix milk and tea to feed her because she is not producing milk. A young girl, Yeshiteta Mamo, says people are collecting cactus fruit to eat, and selling firewood for money to buy grain. Others are coming from the countryside in search of work as labourers in the town, but there is no work, she says.

In Fachatu town, Fuad Yusuf, health assistant with a local peasant association, says he has recorded over 5,000 cases of malnutrition from a catchment of 33,301 people in the past two months - all of them children, mostly under-fives and also suffering from disease. Of these, he says 1,047 had 70-80 percent of normal bodyweight for their age; 2,704 had 60 to 70 percent; and 1,500 were severely malnourished, with less than 60 percent bodyweight for their age. Hunger is rife and malaria endemic so that, though the clinic has recorded no deaths, there will be "real problems" if food aid and supplementary feeding for targeted vulnerable groups does not continue through to December, says Fuad. "People are not hungry, they are starving," he adds.

None of this comes as a surprise to Jim Borton, Coordinator of the UN Emergency Unit in Addis Ababa, who says there is now "quite a serious crisis in what are traditional areas of need". The "signs of severe stress" he mentions include unusual migration patterns, sale of productive assets, increased rates of acute malnutrition, poor terms of trade between the sale price of livestock and the cost of grain, and the consumption of wild foods. UNICEF is particularly worried that "the safety net is negligible", and coming immediately "on the shirt tails of the food crisis is a potential health crisis".

"None of this comes as a surprise to Jim Borton, Coordinator of the UN Emergency Unit in Addis Ababa"

The DPPC is coping with the emergency and has managed to supply food "to those who need it most, but not to all those who need it", according to Deputy Commissioner Gizaw Birhane. The government has devoted extra resources to cope with the effects of the drought, but needs donor assistance to cope with the food needs of some 5.3 million people at risk (a figure that includes over 300,000 internally displaced people arising from the war with Eritrea), he adds. The UN Country Team last week called in its Relief Action Plan and Appeal for US $40.5 million from donors towards the cost of 230,715 mt of food aid needed until December, and US $7.5m towards non-food interventions in health, water and sanitation, seed supply and livestock support.

The situation may become immeasurably worse if Ethiopian people at risk "lose the spark of optimism" that food aid gives them and leave their homes and land to congregate in search of food, warns Borton. "We're at the precipice: we're perilously close. We need to withdraw from that situation," he adds.

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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