Ethiopians die in droves for lack of clean water

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The Independent Online

Fresh water has become the priority in Ethiopia, even though food donations are pouring in to the famine threatened country. Tens of thousands of people are gathering in towns in the eastern Somali region but, after years of drought, water is either non-existent or contaminated.

Aid agencies are trying to fill the gap with a handful of tankers but funds are limited, trucks scarce and breakdowns frequent. Jay Zimmerman, of Save the Children USA, which has three trucks providing a maximum of 80,000 litres to 24,000 people, said: "Trucking the food isn't such a problem but water is a different matter. Without it, you will see a very desperate situation. I have no idea what these people are going to do. It took us three days to come back to Addis Ababa and get one truck fixed. In the meantime, people have died."

Ethiopia is experiencing one of its most severe droughts in generations. Seasonal rains have failed for the fourth successive year in some regions. Wells have dried up, crops have perished and camels - the last milk source for starving children - are starting to die.

While food is arriving through Western pledges - an estimated 800,000 tons are needed to stave off a catastrophic famine - the lack of water means some people are not benefiting. Without water they are unable to cook the cereals being distributed and children are eating high-energy biscuits without mixing them with water, losing most of the nutritional value.

Judith Lewis, UN World Food Programme country director, said: "This is a difficult situation in a good year but to be exacerbated by a lack of water is a real nightmare. We know people are going to die and we can't do anything about it." Miss Lewis said she had visited a town where people were drawing and drinking water that "looked like motor oil". The WFP has made an exception to its usual food-only mandate and hired fixed water tankers for the area. The WFP executive director, Catherine Bertini, is to be accompanied by water specialist on a visit to the area starting tomorrow.

Aid workers agree Ethiopia is experiencing a pre-famine drought. Mr Zimmerman said: "Right now it's a severe drought. It's not a famine - that will happen if it doesn't rain soon. Then you will see a very desperate situation."

Tens of thousands of people have left their villages after livestock was sold or died. Massive migration is one of the WFP's biggest problems. Miss Lewis said: "Our problem is to figure out where they are going and if they are going to stay there. That's causing part of the vulnerability right now."

The war with Eritrea has complicated aid delivery in landlocked Ethiopia. The Eritrean port of Assab, through which the UN used to ship 75 per cent of requirements, is closed to Ethiopians. All aid is being moved through the smaller port of Djibouti, which is being upgraded.

The present situation differs from the 1984 famine in several respects. While then the Ethiopian government tried first to ignore and hide the problem, it is now acting to assist famine-stricken areas and mobilise international aid.

There is more co-operation with Western agencies through a dedicated government body, which has established 300 feeding points. A government food reserve provided an early buffer that has been almost depleted in the past two months. Miss Lewis said: "We are working closely to share information now. That just didn't exist in 1984."

But war is the one constant between the two periods. While it has had little impact on the food crisis, it has blocked Assab and, more importantly, made donors reluctant to reach into their pockets. One aid worker said: "Donors are uncomfortable with giving money to a government that is at war."

While the present crisis has attracted a 400,000-ton donation from the US and 50,000 tons from the European Union, the same donors are unenthusiastic about supporting longer- term development projects.

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