It's estimated four and a half million people in Ethiopia need immediate food assistance as a result of drought. That's on top of more than seven million already receiving other types of humanitarian and government aid. Higher food prices have made it more difficult to deal with the situation.
Simon Roughneen, a freelance journalist and analyst, is traveling through the drought-stricken parts of the country. He's currently in Sidama Province in the southwest, about 800 kilometers from Addis Ababa. He spoke to VOA English to Africa Service reporter Joe De Capua.
"Basically rains have failed in various locations and rains come at various times in various places and…planting seasons are arranged around these rains. And if they don't come it adds considerably to what's called the hunger period, which is generally between harvests…. Now, I have been traveling around Sidama Province, west of the town of Awassa, which is some of the worst hit regions. Basically the story is the staple crop there is maize…. That's failed…. It's already adding to a situation in the country, where you have anywhere between three and five million people who are chronically food aid dependent at the best of times anyway," he says.
Roughneen says he's visited a number of health and feeding centers that are caring for severely malnourished children under the age of five. The young children are especially vulnerable to the effects of food shortages and drought.
"You see crowds of mothers, sometimes fathers and brothers, bringing their younger siblings, their younger children to these places where often they wait up to a week to receive treatment for malnutrition…. It's too early to call it a humanitarian disaster just yet, but the problem is that the rains are late in many places, which is going to affect the harvests, which is going to affect the food supply availability on the ground," he says.
Asked how aid agencies are coping with the situation, Roughneen says, "We have rising food prices…across the world and basic staples have gone up over the past couple of years, In some cases up over 100 percent. And then you have the phenomenon of the huge oil prices…which is affecting transport costs. And also related aspects, such as fertilizers, which are fuel and petroleum dependent, as well. So, aid agencies are facing increasing costs in terms of meeting their basic or ongoing needs."
He says that for example the World Food Program's projected budget fell far short of what is needed, due to soaring food prices.But he also points out that past experience with drought has taught aid agencies how to help prevent situations from deteriorating into famine, as in years past. He says, "It's not all doom and gloom. I mean there are positive things happening here on the ground as well…. The other side of the town I'm in…the eastern side of that town…is not so drought affected as the west. I've seen some livelihood programs that some of the aid agencies are implementing with local farmers. They're giving them sheep and goats. For example, they're training beekeepers. There's a good system here in terms of getting freshly produced honey into the main towns…. They're changing the crop cycles and the basic staples that are grown here. I mean maize is the main one, but they're trying to diversify…and the aid agencies are providing seeds, tools, basic training in terms of growing different crops…. That in turn can boost the overall food production within the country."