Agencies scramble to deliver food aid as scale of Ethiopian drought prompts international action

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The Independent Online

Western aid agencies are scrambling this weekend to Ethiopia where a catastrophic famine is looming due to chronic drought and the continuing war with Eritrea.

Eight million people are at risk of starvation in the country, according to United Nations estimates. Some regions, particularly in the east, have not had significant rains for four years. An estimated 800,000 tons of food are needed to avert the present crisis but just over half that amount has been pledged, mostly by the United States.

Roberta Rossi, a spokeswoman for the UN World Food programme (WFP), said: "It's a critical situation. People have had to sell what assets they had to feed themselves. At this point they have nothing left."

Aid agencies fear that if further aid is not pledged immediately, the "food pipeline" could be empty this summer if seasonal rains fail to materialise. It takes up to five months for pledged food to arrive, and current stocks were pledged in late 1999.

Aid deliveries to the chronically affected eastern Ogaden province have also been hampered by poor infrastructure and Ethiopia's continuing war with neighbouring Eritrea. The town of Gode received no food aid last month, although limited rations are now available through a local non-governmental organisation sponsored by US aid agencies. There have already been outbreaks of measles and tuberculosis and the weak, mainly children and old people, are dying every day.

There are no Western aid workers in the highly insecure area near the Somali border. WFP employs 61 local food monitors in the region, mostly through the Ogaden Welfare Society. However, Oxfam, Save the Children Fund and the UN Children's Fund, Unicef, and almost all of the major aid agencies are planning humanitarian interventions for the coming weeks.

The war with Eritrea is thought to have strongly influenced the West's tardy response to the crisis. But aid agencies reject this as a false argument. Ann O'Mahony of Irish charity Concern, said: "There is always this dilemma in any famine situation. But I don't think it's fair to hold the victims to ransom because of the actions of their government."

Before the war, the UN shipped 75 per cent of its food through the Eritrean port of Assab. Now it must use the more distant and smaller port at Djibouti, in the neighbouring republic. This week, Ethiopia turned down an offer by Eritrea to use Assab for landing food aid as a "public relations gimmick", claiming that Eritrea had stolen thousands of tons of food from the same port in the past.

Despite persistent warnings from the UN since Christmas, Western attention was only focused on the looming famine this week when the Ethiopian Foreign Minister, Seyoum Mesfin, accused the world of waiting to see "pictures of skeletons" before responding to his country's cry for help. Sir Bob Geldof, who founded Live Aid in response to the 1984 Ethiopian famine, joined in the criticism. He accused the European Union of complacency but praised the speed of the US response.

Further donations were pledged yesterday, with Canada promising $6m (£3.75m) of aid, Ireland $60,000 and Greece $20,0000. France donated 6,000 tons of food aid to the WFP appeal for the region.

Berhane Gizaw, of Ethiopia's Disaster Prevention and Preparedness Commission (DPPC), said yesterday that final arrangements were being made to ship 13,000 tons of food to the worst affected areas. More than 100 locally owned trucks would start transporting the food this weekend, he said, adding that despite pockets of hunger, mainly in the Gode area, "the situation now is not very desperate as such. A major crisis can be averted if there are pledges now."

Mr Berhane said part of the problem was that stocks at the government's emergency food reserve, to which donors contribute, had fallen from a capacity of 400,000 tons to just 30,000 tons as a result of shortages over the last year.

* Critical vaccination and nutrition programs for women and children in drought-stricken Ethiopia are at serious risk because donors are not providing money, the United Nations Children's Fund, Unicef, said yesterday. The agency appealed for $4.7m (nearly £3m) for emergency schemes linked to the drought. A spokeswoman, Lynn Geldof, said that some donations in kind had been received, but no money.

The agency has allocated an emergency loan of almost $500,000 as a temporary solution to the funding shortfall, but says that is not enough. "We are talking of over one million children at high risk of acute malnutrition," said Rodney Phillips, a senior program officer for Unicef in Ethiopia.

Unicef says that donors who are providing money for food in Ethiopia should also remember non-food needs. The agency is planning a major administration of vitamin A and is also providing high-protein biscuits and rehydration salts.