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Millions Threatened with Starvation in Ethiopia and Eritrea: Needs of Millions Worldwide Threaten to Overwhelm International Emergency Food Supplies

(November 14, 2002) The UN World Food Programme (WFP) has just warned that over 12 million people in Ethiopia and Eritrea are threatened with starvation over the next months and launched an urgent appeal to provide emergency relief food there.

Recent joint WFP, donor, and government assessment missions across Ethiopia reveal widespread losses of maize and sorghum crops, the staple foods for most rural people. Malnutrition rates have reached alarming levels in some areas. In Eritrea, poor rainfall since October, 2001 has meant that cereal planting was delayed and was not as extensive as usual. Recent estimates indicate an almost complete loss in the country's cereal harvest.

"We are facing a serious humanitarian catastrophe. At least ten million people will need food aid just in Ethiopia. But if this month's rains stop early, up to 14 million people there will require urgent assistance," said WFP's Executive Director, James T. Morris. "In Eritrea, the total number of people affected by this drought is estimated at over 2 million, or about 60 percent of the entire population," he said. "These figures are large and dramatic and the international community should take notice. If donors respond quickly, we can help avoid an immense human tragedy there," said Mr. Morris. "Unless we come to grips with this problem very soon, we face the real possibility of witnessing a devastating wave of human suffering and death as early as next year."

In southern Africa, drought is also the prime cause of hunger that is now threatening an estimated 14.4 million people. On the other side of the African continent, lack of rain is already causing serious hardship and is spreading in five Western Sahelian countries, affecting up to 1.5 million people.

Most of these crises are related to erratic weather patterns. The statistics point to an alarming trend. According to the World Disasters Report: 2002, "The past two years have seen the highest number of weather-related disasters reported over the decade." This has meant that millions of people, who were already vulnerable, have had to contend with the destructive power of major natural disasters and it has fallen to the humanitarian community to assist them.

In Central America, over 1.5 million people have seen their food supplies wither because of drought. In Afghanistan, four years of drought and decades of conflict are still wreaking havoc on the lives of almost 10 million people.

North Korea continues to experience acute food shortages. Insufficient funding of WFP operations there has led to the suspension of food aid rations for three million hungry women, children and elderly people-- with 1.5 million more people likely to be cut off in January.


Photo: ©Wagdi Othman/WFP 2002

Mieso, West Hararghe - Sani Yuya's two-year-old son, Ahmed, is malnourished. With no proper harvest for four years, his family of four faces critical food shortages along with over one million people in the region. Although traditionally a food producing area, many farmers have no maize, which is harvested green at this time of year, and represents an important lean season food. They also lack livestock products such as milk. Across Ethiopia, the drought could result in 10 to 14 million people needing food aid in 2003, depending on October's rainfall.

In this context, WFP is calling for the international community to rethink the way it responds to the world's growing food emergencies. According to  Morris, "While modern society is not prepared to tolerate the face of mass hunger, agencies like WFP, as well as hundreds of highly effective NGOs, are finding it increasingly difficult to find the resources to respond adequately to the growing number of emergencies."

"Dependent on voluntary contributions, WFP and NGOs are caught between the rising needs of millions of hungry people and government budgets that are already stretched and contending with a global economic slowdown," he said. "The sad truth is that as things stand the humanitarian system faces the prospect of being completely overwhelmed."

"It is clear that business as usual is insufficient to address the rising humanitarian crises we confront. The combined needs of over 40 million people cannot be shrugged off. Nor can the needs of 300 million hungry children, who either go to school and don't get a meal or don't go to school at all," Morris said.

WFP's executive director says it is necessary to find creative solutions to the insufficient funding of humanitarian operations. "This will require the determined focus and imagination of governments as well as the wholehearted support of ordinary citizens who must decide what kind of societies they want to live in."

Lane Vanderslice is editor of Hunger Notes

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