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Ethiopia's Food Crisis Could Be Worse Than 1984 Famine - 2003-02-06

There’s renewed warning that Ethiopia is facing a food crisis that could be far worse than the 1984-85 famine when more than one million people died. Researchers have listed a number of reasons for the current food crisis including drought, bad roads and erosion.

The International Food Policy Research Institute says, “more than eleven million Ethiopians face starvation.” It warns that number could rise to as many as fifteen million later this year, “one-fifth of the country’s total population.”

However, just a year ago, there were large surpluses of maize. Farmers in parts of the country had two consecutive years of bumper crops. However, those surpluses contributed to the problems in the country today.

The institute says there was so much maize for sale that prices fell by eighty percent. It says, “Maize production became so unprofitable that many farmers abandoned their crops in the field.” As a result, they were unable to pay off loans for fertilizer and seeds.

Joachim von Braun is the director-general of the International Food Policy Research Institute.

He says, "The underlying cause of famine today in Ethiopia is, of course, poverty. It’s a very poor country. It’s a root cause. And the causes of this poverty are very underdeveloped, low yielding, low productivity agriculture in a country where eighty percent of people really depend on agriculture. And where more than one third of the population has less than a dollar a day per capita."

He says over the past decade, Ethiopia’s population has become even more vulnerable due to poor education and HIV/AIDS.

John Pender, a senior institute researcher, says Ethiopia currently has very low yields of cereal and milk. The weather gets much of the blame.

He says, "Low and unreliable rainfall is, of course, a major problem. In seven of the last twenty years, there’s been a major drought somewhere in Ethiopia. Farmers are very susceptible to this, especially because only one-percent of the cropland is irrigated. But not only crops are affected by drought. Farmers in Ethiopia are also very dependent upon livestock production. And farmers lose the value of their livestock through death and to the declining prices of livestock when there’s a major drought."

While the land is dry and baked, it is also being eroded. Nature is unable to make soil as fast as it is being lost. And what’s left doesn’t grow much. Mr. Pender says, “The soils in the northern highlands have lost up to half of their productive capacity, according to some estimates.”

Mr. Pender, "As bad as the erosion problems are, perhaps even worse is the decline in soil organic matter in the soil of Ethiopia. Farmers need to burn animal dung, crop residue and other sources of fuel because of the extreme shortage of fuel wood in the country. This decline in soil organic matter reduces the capacity of soil to absorb water. Increases problems of runoff and erosion and reduces soil fertility. The net result being lower agriculture production and increased vulnerability to drought and famine."

Another contributing factor, he says, is deforestation as people cut timber for fuel. He recommends better water and land management, as well as a diversification of livelihoods. Mr. Pender says currently there is a great deal of emphasis on cereal production, when more could be placed on cattle and tree growing.

Poor roads and corruption make solving the food crisis more difficult. Eleni Gebre-Madhin is also a researcher at the International Food Policy Research Institute. She tells the story of a grain wholesaler trying to sell his goods.

She says, "He transported this maize, truckload of maize, 900 kilometers passing through three administrative regions. It took him two and a half weeks to get there instead of the two or three days that it should have. He was stopped on numerous occasions by road checks and incurred much expense in bribes and fees in addition to the transport and handling. The poor condition of the roads meant he lost a considerable amount of grain because sacks burst along the way. And when he finally arrived in the market town of Mekelle in Tigray, he could not find the buyer who had agreed to buy his grain. At the end of the day when he had completed his balance sheet, he had lost money and, of course, never repeated this attempt."

She says Ethiopia, like many African countries, must come up with better ways of transporting and marketing goods.

As the food shortages continue, The UN World Food Program estimates nearly one and a half million metric tons of food aid will be needed this year. The WFP says that will cost at least 500 million dollars. It says where food aid is not available in Ethiopia, farmers and herders are forced to sell their belongings to buy food.