The head of the U.N. World Food Program (WFP) in Ethiopia says the country's emergency food stocks are almost completely exhausted, with drought conditions expected to worsen before they improve. There are also growing concerns about food shortages in Ethiopia's reclusive neighbor, Eritrea.
WFP's Ethiopia Country Director Abdou Dieng says despite a good response to international appeals for food aid, Ethiopia faces a critical shortfall in emergency supplies. He says the reserve established by the government to prevent a recurrence of past food crises is almost empty.
"There is food reserve, but today it's almost at zero level. We cannot count on that. Now what we are trying to do is increase the level of the food which can be kept in the reserve. We can go up to one million tons [and] we're talking about 80 million people here who need food, so this is exactly where we are working together to try to increase the food reserve," noted Dieng.
Of Ethiopia's 80 million people, Dieng says between 13 million and 14 million are receiving some sort of food assistance. The government estimates 4.5 million need emergency food aid, but experts expect that number to keep rising until the rains come, allowing farmers to plant and harvest life saving crops.
The WFP official says $200 million in donations has been received since the onset of the current drought. Dieng estimates another $100 million will be necessary to meet Ethiopia's needs until the end of the year.
Dieng also said the WFP is monitoring reports filtering out of Eritrea suggesting food shortages there as well. The reports are hard to verify, and Eritrea's autocratic government has denied the drought is affecting food supplies. But satellite images indicate the country is affected by the same weather pattern that has victimized much of the Horn of Africa.
Dieng says Eritrean refugees arriving at camps in northern Ethiopia are saying the Asmara, Eritrea, government tries to prevent them from leaving, and that conditions are deteriorating.
"All this is speculation," Dieng added. "What we know is you can't have a drought in Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya in a certain area and not having the same [nearby]. But what we heard from the government in Eritrea, they say there is no problem when it comes to food aid in Eritrea. But for people crossing the border and coming into Ethiopia that we interview, we know there is some problem, and we are monitoring that very closely."
Assistant U.S. Secretary of State for Africa Johnnie Carson last month said many Eritrean refugees fleeing to Ethiopia are suffering from life-threatening malnutrition. He urged officials in the Eritrean capital, Asmara, to cooperate with U.N. agencies and international organizations to address the issues of hunger and food shortages.
The WFP's Dieng estimates the number of Eritrean refugees at camps in northern Ethiopia at a few thousand. That is nowhere near as large as the more than 150,000 Somali refugees in southern and eastern Ethiopia, and the even larger numbers in Kenya.
He says the U.N. agency technically maintains an office in Asmara, but has not had any international staff there since 2005, and is not able to monitor conditions in the nation of 5 million.