Ethiopia prey to a deceptive 'green famine'

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The Independent Online

Berhommesh Gebrie suddenly and quietly collapses to her knees as her frail body tries to be sick. But there is nothing in her stomach. Her father, Gebrie Gedda, stoops down, gently taking hold of his 12-year-old daughter's shoulders as her body silently convulses.

Berhommesh Gebrie suddenly and quietly collapses to her knees as her frail body tries to be sick. But there is nothing in her stomach. Her father, Gebrie Gedda, stoops down, gently taking hold of his 12-year-old daughter's shoulders as her body silently convulses.

Although empty, her stomach is distended and her skin is gradually bleaching as malnutrition takes hold. Two days later, Berhommesh's thin legs are no longer able to support her own declining body weight. Like many children and adults in the village of Ordie, 235km south of Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, Berhommesh has not eaten for days. Like thousands of people across the south of the country, she is starving to death in a "green famine" brought on by three consecutive years of crop failure.

Villagers are burying people every week in Ordie, and elsewhere in the southern district of Hadiya, where to date some 5,000 people have died. It is a hidden crisis in part of the country unaffected by the recent war with Eritrea and where little international aid has arrived in response to Ethiopia's third consecutive year of drought.

After the failure of the early belg rains in March, bursts of rain in April left the countryside looking luscious and green. Some maize even sprang up.

But there is nothing to eat. The maize, if it survives, will not mature for months. Ominously, even the drought-resistant plant Enset, or false banana, upon which millions of villagers rely in difficult years, has given up the ghost. The 10 per cent of animals in Ordie that survived the drought are now in better condition than the people. At least they can eat grass.

"My mother and two of my children have died of hunger," said Gebrie Gedda, who is 42. "I sold our cattle and everything we had to buy food. "

The subtlety of "green famine" is one reason why aid is taking so long getting through to southern villagers, says Aydiko Ayele, deputy general secretary of the 3.5 million-strong Kale Heywet Church, whose relief and development department is currently targeting 80,000 of Hadiya's worst-affected citizens.

"Green famine confuses outsiders. People visit and ask 'Where is the drought? It is very green, we can see crops. How come there is famine?' But when you scratch the surface, there is a huge problem.

"In Gode in the east of the country it is brown. It looks like a drought. Here in the south, it still appears green and beautiful, but there is nothing for the people to eat."

The church has been distributing emergency seed and fertiliser. If villagers do not plant this month to catch the main meher rains, millions could be threatened by starvation later in the year.

Deforestation, from 44 per cent of tree cover a century ago down to 3 per cent now, poor water management and over-intensive farming are behind Ethiopia's ecological disaster. What hampers agencies' many long-term efforts to tackle such issues is that they are so often put in crisis mode, responding to the desperation of children such as Berhommesh Gebrie.

Keith Ewing works for Tearfund, the Christian relief and development agency. Horn of Africa emergency famine appeal: 0845 355 8355.

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