New famine threat for Ethiopia

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LIKE SO many other victims of Ethiopia's hunger crisis, Usheto Beriso weighs only half what he should. He is always cold, even when swaddled in a blanket. His limbs are stick-thin.

But Usheto is not the typical face of Ethiopia's chronic food problems, the scrawny baby or the ailing toddler. He is aged 55, and among a growing number of adults and older children hit by severe hunger after poor rains and crop failure in southern Ethiopia, health workers say.

"To see adults in this condition, it's a very serious situation," said nurse Mieke Steenssens, a volunteer with Doctors Without Borders, as she registered 5'4" Usheto's weight at just 73lb (5st).

Warnings about the worsening situation in Ethiopia prompted the British government to send an extra 10 million in aid to the country, the International Development secretary, Douglas Alexander, has announced. It follows 5 million approved last month.

The combination of drought and rising food prices has left 126,000 children facing severe malnutrition, Unicef says. It says more than three million Ethiopians will need emergency food aid in coming months.

It is the older victims, aid groups say, that suggest an escalation of the crisis in a country that drew international attention in 1984, when a famine compounded by communist policies killed some one million people.

This year's crisis, blamed on a country-wide drought and skyrocketing global food prices, is far less severe. But several aid groups have sounded the alarm. "We're overwhelmed," said Margaret Aguirre, a spokeswoman for the International Medical Corps, a California-based aid agency. "There's not enough food and everyone's starving and that's all there is to it.

"Older children are starting to show the signs of malnutrition when normally they might be able to withstand shocks to the system," she added.

The worldwide food crisis tied to soaring prices could push up to a billion people across the globe into hunger, experts say.

But in Ethiopia, a drought is more disastrous because more than 80 per cent of people live off the land. Agriculture drives the economy, accounting for half of all domestic production and 85 per cent of exports.

The annual "lean season" that begins around June is marked by near-empty grain stores, with the next harvest not due until around September. Locust invasions and poor rains have worsened the situation.

Ethiopia already receives more food aid than almost any other country in the world, most of it from the United States, which has provided $300 million in emergency assistance in the past year.

But despite the international help, the country of 78 million is again facing hunger on a mass scale, said John Holmes, the top UN humanitarian official.

"The World Food Programme feeds some 8 million already, together with the others in Ethiopia," he said. "But we may need to increase that, because of drought."

Studies in southern Ethiopia – the epicentre of the crisis – suggest up to one in four young mothers is showing signs of moderate malnutrition.

Ethiopia's chief disaster response official, Simon Mechale, said that the food situation was "under control" and will be resolved within four months. But in the countryside, there are signs that drought has taken a more serious toll.

At a recent food distribution in a village some 150 miles southwest of the capital, more than 4,000 people showed up for free wheat and cooking oil, but only 1,300 rations were available.

Harried health workers picked through the crowd, sorting out the sickest children. Frantic mothers proffered their withered infants.

Ayelech Daka said her six-year-old son, Tariken Lakamu, has been living on one meal a day for the past three months.

"He was very fat three months ago," said his mother. "He was normal. Now, he's a pile of bones and skin."

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