Hunger Gnaws at Ethiopia

Times Staff Writer

At the Yirba Health Center, aid workers have erected makeshift tents to accommodate 150 starving children, carried by parents who walked as long as nine hours to get here. In the last week, three children have died from malnutrition. And in rural villages, dozens more are dying from starvation.

As Ethiopia approaches what is known here as the hungry season, aid workers say they are scrambling to ensure that the food crisis now crippling the Horn of Africa doesn’t replicate the country’s infamous 1984 famine, when about 1 million Ethiopians perished and 7 million more suffered.

So far, the pain has been confined to pockets of misery across this drought-stricken nation, thanks to food aid that now supports about 13 million Ethiopians, or about one-fifth of the population.


But in an interview Friday, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi said millions of his people “are now on the edge of death.”

United Nations agencies recommend that starving people receive 15 kilograms of grain -- roughly 33 pounds -- each month. But because Ethiopia doesn’t have enough supplies, Meles said, it has been forced to cut rations to 12.5 kilograms a month.

Aid workers, meanwhile, say extra help will soon be needed because projected poor harvests will make more people dependent on food rations to survive.

“It’s not going to go away,” said Georgia Shaver, who heads the United Nations’ World Food Program office in Addis Ababa, the capital, three to four hours from Boricha by car.

Many Ethiopians are aware of the critical food shortage. On Sunday, some Ethiopian performers will attempt to raise $1.7 million through an event patterned after the 1985 Live Aid concert, when international musicians came together to sing “We Are the World” and raise $60 million for famine victims.

The local event, dubbed “A Birr for a Compatriot,” will urge Ethiopians to donate at least one birr -- about 12 cents -- to help drought victims.


Selome Tadesse, the concert organizer, says she and her colleagues knew that recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had turned the world’s attention away from troubles afflicting Ethiopia and its African neighbors.

“This is an Ethiopian attempt to take care of its own problems,” said Tadesse, a former government spokeswoman.

Aid workers say more people would have died if aid agencies had not predicted a year ago that Ethiopia faced a looming famine.

About 83% of Ethiopia’s 65 million people are subsistence farmers who live in rural areas. Erratic or no rains during the last two years turned some fields into mini dust bowls, devoid of the maize, yams and vegetables that residents need to survive.

The drought devastated some regions that had successfully weathered previous dry spells, especially a province known as the Southern Nations, Nationalities and People’s Region.

Casualties of the drought have been showing up at the Yirba Health Center for the last two weeks. Many children here have painful grimaces frozen on their faces -- consistent with kwashiorkor, a dietary deficiency that robs children of the ability to smile. Some children are too weak to complain. Their attempts at crying sound like stifled whimpers or weak coughs.


Last week, Kibra Gabiso cuddled her only child, 16-month-old Ladawe, as a health worker gave the girl injections of vitamins and antibiotics. Ladawe’s body was covered with a bluish skin infection that exposed the flesh on some parts of her body, another symptom of kwashiorkor.

Ladawe didn’t even flinch when the needles pierced her skin.

“We’re going to lose her,” said Asayehegn Tekeste, the health worker. “Many are making progress, but we are losing some.”

The emaciated children are highly susceptible to infections. Because their bodies are feeble, some eventually succumb to treatable ailments, including malaria, pneumonia and dehydration. Others develop multiple organ failure.

At the Bushulo Health Center, run by Roman Catholic nuns, three children have died in the last two weeks, according to Dr. Isabel Arbide, the facility’s medical director.

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Arbide, an Italian doctor who has worked in the village near Lake Awasa since 1987. “Usually some children are short of food until the crops come up in [August], but the hunger has never been to this extent.”

The patients in the 30-bed pediatrics ward at Bushulo Health Center have more than doubled in the last week. Health workers crammed 32 more beds in the corridor outside the already overcrowded ward to accommodate children and their parents.


In the neighboring Fik zone of the country’s Somali Region, about 30% of children suffer from malnutrition, according to aid officials.

In the southern regions of Ethiopia, starvation appears to affect children under 5 more severely than it does their parents or elderly people.

“The children are not eating first,” Arbide said. “It’s all about survival. When you eat from a pot, the strongest one eats first and the strongest one survives.”

Since last summer, the Ethiopian government and dozens of local and foreign aid groups have been distributing food to prevent more people from starving to death.

Hundreds of people who joined a food line in the village of Hanjachafa left with monthly rations of 30 pounds of wheat and small bags containing a high-protein supplement.

Gowan Yebo, who is in his 70s, recounted how his crops of maize and false banana -- villagers eat the trunk and roots of this barren banana plant -- became stunted because the rains came late. Yebo had to sell his only cow to feed his extended family, including a 4-year-old grandson who was waiting in line with him. Lingering drought killed precious livestock of many other families.


Recalling that in 1984 he donated 200 pounds of grain to help famine victims, Yebo said he never thought that his own family would have to resort to handouts to survive.

“If we didn’t get this food, we’d all die,” he said.

A disaster assistance response team from the United States Agency for International Development is currently in Addis Ababa to examine how best to prevent more starvation-related deaths and diseases. So far, the U.S. government has donated $320 million in aid toward food relief in Ethiopia -- about one-third of the projected need.

Aid officials warn that Ethiopia still needs an additional 300,000 tons of food to feed its hungry population for the rest of the year.

“We’ve been successful in keeping people on the edge of death,” Prime Minister Meles said Friday. But, he added, “because they are on the edge, some people are bound to trip, especially children and the weak.”

“It would be wrong for me to say that [donors] haven’t responded generously,” Meles said. “They have not responded as well as the situation demands. But nevertheless, without their assistance, we would not be talking about 10 children dead here and 15 people there, we would be talking about hundreds of thousands.”

Meles said the government is working vigorously to secure the 300,000 tons of food, but he was not optimistic.


If it is not successful, he said, “more people will cross the edge, particularly old people and children, and they’ll die. Hopefully, it wouldn’t be in the hundreds of thousands of people. It would be in the hundreds. In the thousands maybe.”