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Ethiopia Reduces Food Rations as Prices Soar

Unusually poor rains in the Horn of Africa, compounded by a shortage of reserve food supplies, have forced Ethiopia to reduce the size of emergency rations to needy citizens. The sudden shortage of emergency supplies comes as over-the-counter food prices are soaring.

Ethiopia’s emergency relief agency and international aid groups were caught off guard by how quickly conditions deteriorated as rains failed over the past six months.

As recently as February, Ethiopia’s appeal to humanitarian agencies for food aid covered 2.8 million people, a sharp decline from recent years. But by April, as grazing lands dried up in pastoral areas over a wide swath of Eastern Africa, the appeal was revised to include an additional 400,000 Ethiopians.

This is on top of a separate supplementary feeding program that covers an additional 8 million people.

Fresh rains over the past week have helped, but a follow-up assessment now underway is expected to lead to a further increase.

The latest report from the U.S. government funded FEWSNET, or Famine Early Warning System Network, says food insecurity has reached the “moderate to extreme” stage in some regions. It warns that existing assistance programs will not be able to handle “expected food deficits and high malnutrition.”

The shortages are forcing Ethiopia to curtail distribution in all but the hardest-hit regions of two of the four items contained in a food basket designed to help families stave off malnutrition. As a third round of distribution begins, disaster relief agency spokesman Akloweg Nigatu says supplies of pulses (dry beans and peas) and high-nutrition Corn-Soya Blend are critically low.

"Now we [are] just distributing one-third less pulses for the third round, and we [are] not able to provide CSB, Corn-Soya Blend, because we are short of it, sorely depleted. But we are trying to get this limited resource by asking our partners," he said.

The United States and the U.N. World Food Program are among the main partners, or providers of nutritional assistance. But the WFP relief and refugee section chief in Ethiopia, Giammichele De Maio, says it can take months from the time an appeal is made until the food arrives.

"It usually takes an average lead-time of four, five months to get the food in the country, and that’s when we are actually able to distribute it to the beneficiaries. The latest request has come in April. There was a previous request in February, indeed several contributions are on their way, but still there are huge shortfalls in the relief pipeline currently," he said.

USAID director for Ethiopia Thomas Staal says the United States is working urgently on a project to produce Corn-Soya Blend in Ethiopia to meet domestic needs. In the meantime, he says a search is on for stocks of pulses that can be quickly purchased from other regions and moved to the Horn of Africa. "That we have to definitely import and we’re working with other donors to provide funding to WFP to import additional pulse. So we’re working with those donors, WFP and the government to see if we can’t move food around in the short term while in the longer term getting additional commodities," he said.

Agencies working in southern and southeastern Ethiopia say the drought has claimed the lives of countless thousands of livestock on which the region’s economy depends.

Aid workers say the effects of the drought have been made worse by steep increases in food costs worldwide. Ethiopia’s Central Statistics Agency this week reported a nearly 30 percent increase in the inflation rate in April from the previous year, driven mostly by a 32 percent jump in food prices.