In many parts of northeastern Africa, the spring rains have not arrived for three years — triggering massive crop failures and threatening almost 16 million people with starvation. Thousands have already died; about 400 people are now dying each month in Gode alone. Wars in the region are preventing the delivery of food; in some places, men with Kalashnikov rifles, patrolling what remains of watering holes, turn away people dying of thirst. Nomads, many little more than wandering skeletons, walk for days in search of relief workers with food. Others sit, exhausted, and wait for death to find them.
Children are the first to die. At a makeshift shelter in the town of Denan, 110 km southeast from Gode, mothers holding their malnourished children stare blankly into space. The children are often too sick to eat. When one mother tries to force-feed her baby daughter, the formula drips down the little girl’s chest. The baby’s eyelids flicker, and nearing death she drops her head — just as an aid worker directs another woman to a mat where a child had just succumbed.
United Nations officials first warned of the impending famine last year, when the rains did not arrive for the second time. Since then, food aid has been slow in coming — an eerie parallel with the famine of 15 years ago that killed nearly one million people in Ethiopia. Aid organizations have accused donors of dragging their feet, just as they did in 1984 when relief efforts did not kick into full gear until television broadcast the tragedy and musicians tugged at the world’s conscience with the poignant songs Do They Know It’s Christmas? and We Are the World.
As it was 15 years ago, violence is also complicating aid efforts. Ethiopia has been fighting a 23-month-long border war with neighbouring Eritrea. The fighting has killed tens of thousands of soldiers and cost Ethiopia an estimated $1 billion. Even with widespread starvation looming, the government last year tripled its defence budget to $700 million. “They shouldn’t be fighting a war over a small patch of land when their own people are starving,” says John O’Shea, the head of Goal, an Irish aid group in Addis Ababa, the Ethiopian capital. “It’s a savage war and it’s taking a lot of resources away from the aid effort.”
Donors, particularly some European nations, have been reluctant to make good on their pledges of aid, partly for fear of it being diverted to the battlefront. But as images of children reduced to skeletons reach Western television screens, donors are also aware they run the risk of appearing callous by withholding aid. Most are now stressing that the military and humanitarian situations are separate — and are loosening their purse strings while exhorting Ethiopia to end the hostilities. But the Ethiopian government makes no apologies for continuing the war. “We do not believe that protecting one’s sovereignty,” says Meles Zenawi, Ethiopia’s prime minister, “is a luxury for the rich alone.”
Canada, which recently committed $16 million to the Ethiopian aid effort, intends to ensure that the 24,000 tonnes of food and medicine it supplies reach those who need it. Maria Minna, minister for international co-operation, said that when the aid arrives, it will be turned over to the United Nations and leading relief organizations like Oxfam for distribution. To ensure that it does not fall into the wrong hands, Minna said Ottawa will go one step further. “We plan to hire monitors to make sure the food is delivered to those it should go to,” said Minna, who spoke to Maclean’s from Senegal where she was attending an education conference last week. “So we will follow the grain to the people.”
Aid agencies say they need about one million tonnes of food to deal with the current crisis. International pledges currently stand at 800,000 tonnes, a very significant increase from a month ago when they stood at only 400,000 tonnes. And Minna is hopeful that enough food will get through to slow the growing humanitarian disaster. “We are ahead of the curve,” she said, “and this is why we are shipping now.”
Delivery, though, is bogged down in a logistical nightmare. Landlocked Ethiopia has dismissed an Eritrean offer to use Assab, Eritrea’s main port, to receive shipments. Aid will have to be taken through a port in the neighbouring country of Djibouti, which is capable of handling only 150,000 tonnes per month — much less than Assab. Canada will spend $250,000 as part of an international effort to upgrade the port in Djibouti, but roads into Ethiopia are in terrible shape and it could still take months to get food to the people in greatest need.
Violence is also slowing food delivery in other areas of east Africa. In Somalia, where 1.5 million people are at risk of starvation, fighting between rival militias has resulted in the suspension of emergency food supplies. In Sudan, 1.7 million people are facing starvation, but because of the country’s protraWected civil war, relief is not getting through to some areas. Ethiopia, meanwhile, is fighting the Oromo Liberation Front in the country’s southern region. And there are now fears that the drought will get worse, with weather forecasts indicating that this year the rains will fail to arrive once again. And that will surely lead to more death by starvation across the region.