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Drought Threatens Ethiopia, Eritrea - 2003-02-11

U.S. officials and humanitarian workers are warning that a severe drought in East Africa threatens to cause widespread famine in Ethiopia and Eritrea. The looming crisis could affect more than 15 million people. Officials say severe famine could cause political instability in a strategic region of the world.

Drought and malnutrition are no strangers to countries in East Africa, but, in recent weeks, aid workers and government officials in Ethiopia and Eritrea have begun sounding the alarm that a major famine could strike the area in the coming months.

The head of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Andrew Natsios, recently returned from a trip to East Africa. He says some areas have suffered from a severe drought in the past year.

Mr. Natsios says about 50,000 people died in the last drought in 1999, and many of those who survived had not recovered before this latest lack of rainfall parched the land. "Normally, if people have five or 10 years from [after] a really severe drought, they can recover over time, build their assets, which they typically will sell off to support themselves during a crisis," he says. "They simply did not have time to recover from the last drought, which is why people shifted from food security to food insecurity in a dramatic way over a very short period of time. They were, in fact, completely impoverished, and had their coping mechanisms completely collapse from the previous drought, and had not yet recovered from it."

Mr. Natsios says the United States has pledged to send 270,000 metric tons of food to the region this year, and plans to pledge additional amounts in the next few months. Ethiopia says this is about one-third of the amount needed to avoid a famine.

Officials say more people are facing starvation now than two decades ago, when famine-relief concerts were raising millions of dollars, and images of children with bloated bellies were broadcast on television around the world. But officials also say that, in the current international climate, there are strategic, as well as humanitarian, reasons for averting famine, as the United States and its allies seek to broaden the coalition against terrorism and prepare for a possible war in Iraq.

Stephen Morrison is director of the Africa program at the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies. "In the president's national security strategy, Ethiopia is designated as a strategic partner in battling global terror. December 5, President Bush met with Prime Minister Meles Zenawi, in which a single very important message came forward, reportedly," he says. "Meeting the threat of famine in Ethiopia is going to be critically important to the stability of governance there."

U.S. Congressman Frank Wolf says, on a recent trip to East Africa, he saw the same signs of hunger that he witnessed during a visit in 1984. He says that with U.S. armed forces pouring into the nearby Persian Gulf area, it is important to help stabilize African governments by providing aid to fight famine "It is a very dangerous neighborhood, and a destabilization of the Horn of Africa is not in the best interest of the security and anti-terrorism efforts of the United States," says Congressman Wolf. "Both of these countries, Eritrea and Ethiopia, are in the war with regard to (against) terrorism, so there are other reasons, in addition to the humanitarian reasons why we ought to be involved."

During the 1984 famine, Ethiopia's then-military government tried to keep the emergency a secret. By the time international organizations mobilized to respond, large numbers of people were already dying. The current government has been open about the latest crisis, and has called on the United Nations and other aid agencies for help.

Aid workers say some of the most vulnerable people in Ethiopia and Eritrea could begin dying later in the year, unless governments around the world respond before another disaster sets in.