The UN secretary general, Kofi Annan, urged governments yesterday to act immediately to help 15 million people threatened by the worst famine in the Horn of Africa since 1984.
"We may be a bit late but it is not too late to save lives if we respond at this point," Mr Annan said. "I urge those with the capacity to give, to give and to give generously so that we can save lives."
But as Europe scrambled to send 800,000 tons of relief aid to Ethiopia, where about 10 million people are at risk, some aid workers and UN experts warned that wars in the region were exacerbating the effects of the natural disaster.
A total of 50,000 people have been killed in Ethiopia's border war with Eritrea since May 1998. Both countries are estimated to be pouring hundreds of millions of pounds into hi-tech weaponry, and have funded their war effort by increasing their debt, a senior UN official said yesterday.
Clare Short, the Secretary of State for International Development, has said that the two countries were "wasting valuable resources" on their war.Although there is no fighting at present, there are fears that it could erupt again at any moment in the absence of a signed peace agreement.
As conflicts displace people from the front, so the slender resources of the regions to which they move are placed under pressure, as has happened in Sudan and Somalia.
Environmental degradation has fuelled local conflicts in the Horn of Africa as nomadic tribesmen are forced by the lack of rainfall to move in search of new grazing land.
The latest Ethiopian crisis has been triggered by the failure of the short rains, which normally occur between January and March. Ethiopia has seen hardly any rain in the past three years.
Nigel Marsh, the Nairobi representative of World Vision, a relief agency, who has just visited Ethiopia, said that widespread malnutrition and livestock deaths were already rife in the east. "There is nothing to stop it spreading to the rest of the country within the next six months," he said. "We've got to work quickly, otherwise we'll see a repeat of 1984."
Mr Marsh said that while it could not be said that the war was a "primary cause" of the crisis, tens of thousands of people had fled the fighting in the north to seek refuge in the eastern regions, which were hit by the drought.
The EU said the war between Ethiopia and Eritrea has hampered the relief effort, preventing aid agencies using the Eritrean port of Massawa to supply northern Ethiopia. But Ethiopia says access is "absolutely not a problem".
Charles Walker, an Oxfam spokesman, said that while the war was having a negative effect on Ethiopia's ability to develop and deal with the crisis, "the world can't use the war as reason for not acting decisively".
Ethiopia's Foreign Minister, Seyoum Mesfin, has accused Western donor countries of waiting to see "skeletons on screens" before sending relief.
Bob Geldof, who led the 1985 Live Aid famine appeal for Ethiopia, threw his weight into the debate, saying that the Eritrea-Ethiopia war was being used as an excuse to avoid delivering emergency aid.
"From what I understand there is no fighting in the area," he said. "If they keep talking about that it's a red herring." He also expressed doubts about the European Union's capacity for rapid reaction.
While praising the United States for acting swiftly to help avert a famine, Mr Geldof accused the EU of being as complacent as it was in the 1980s, when an estimated 1 million people died of starvation in the region. "They [the EU] are not in a position to organise. They don't move quickly. They tend to consult endlessly."
Mr Annan is sending the executive director of the World Food Programme, Catherine Bertini, on an assessment mission to the region next week. In addition to Eritrea and Ethiopia, she will travel to Djibouti and northern Kenya, which have been seen no rain since the end of last year.
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