Ethiopians edge back from brink of famine

For the first time the country is almost self-sufficient in food, writes David Orr
Addis Ababa - To many in the West, Ethiopia has become synonymous with the terrible famine of 1984-85, when nearly 1 million people died.

Though its sheer scale has earned it a special place in the annals of human suffering, the Eighties famine is by no means unique in Ethiopia's recent history. In 1973 a drought in the same north-eastern region of the country resulted in the deaths of some 300,000 people.

Again, in 1994, food shortages in the Tigray and Wollo areas killed between 5,000 and 10,000 people.

There are those who believe starvation to be the intermittent but inevitable fate of this part of Africa. Simon Mechale, the man whose unenviable job it is to prevent another famine, is not one of them. But neither is he overly complacent about the future.

"This is the best year in our country for a long time," Ethiopia's Commissioner for Disaster Prevention and Preparedness, said. "We've had better rain, there's peace and the government has been helping farmers with fertiliser and improved seeds. But this doesn't mean there's no problem. We still need food aid for 2.3 million people this year."

Ethiopia is one of the most famine-prone countries on Earth. There is a food shortage here every year, a crisis about once a decade. With proper management it is usually possible - as it should be this year - to prevent people dying from starvation. But the threat of disaster is constant and it is likely that the country's food aid needs will continue to grow rather than diminish.

"To a certain extent we have control over the human elements: what sort of government we have, whether there's war or peace, whether we're implementing the correct agricultural policies," Mr Mechale, an economist with a degree from Bradford University, said. "But if the rain doesn't come, there's nothing we can do."

Among the government's disaster-prevention schemes is a plan to lessen the country's dependence on rainfall by utilising rivers, which an official report has said could be harnessed to develop nearly 6 million acres through irrigation.

The underlying problem is that population growth is outstripping agricultural production and the land is simply not fertile enough to support a population of 57 million people. Besides, the areas of maximum rainfall do not coincide with the areas of maximum population.

Almost half the inhabitants are judged by the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) to be under threat from famine.

"Simply put, people are living where they shouldn't," Allen Jones, WFP director in Ethiopia, said. "It rains more or less all year round in the west but most of the population is concentrated in the centre, the north and north-east."

Yet relocation is not the solution it might appear. Around the time of the 1984-85 famine, the regime of Mengistu Haile Mariam, which fell in 1991, tried to shift whole communities from the beleaguered north and north-east.

It was a disaster: people and cattle used to the highlands fell victim to unfamiliar diseases in the lowlands. And there were outbreaks of ethnic unrest as hitherto unacquainted tribes were forced to compete for scarce resources.

The severity of the 1984-85 famine was exacerbated by the rigidly Marxist Mengistu regime and by its cynical use of food as a weapon of war. Food aid was withheld in an attempt to flush rebels out of their highland strongholds.

Five years of relative peace coupled with the reintroduction of a market economy by the government of Meles Zenawi have helped boost agricultural production. These factors, combined with the good rains of last year, have conspired to make the country, for the first time in recent memory, almost self-sufficient in food.

In the past decade or so Ethiopia needed about 600,000 tonnes of food aid a year. That amounts to an average spending of pounds 80m a year on food aid. But the bulk of the 125,000 tonnes needed this year will be purchased in Ethiopia.

Yet Ethiopia remains one of the poorest countries: per capita income is estimated at less than pounds 75 per annum.

"Ethiopia is extremely vulnerable," Mr Jones said. "In times of drought, the people don't have enough cattle to sell to tide them over. A man can't just go out and pawn his wife's jewellery, because she hasn't got any. People don't have much access to jobs; the vast majority just scratch a living from the land."

Nevertheless, there are signs that the situation is improving. The 1994 drought endangered just as many people as were affected a decade earlier, yet the death-toll was much lower.

The difference was that in 1994 the relief mechanisms were in place. The government, the UN and non-governmental organisations were able to act quickly, implementing a pre-agreed plan and drawing on massive food reserves at strategic locations.

This year for the first time the government is asking for aid to train people to look after the food needs of their own regions and to detect the early warning signs of food shortages.