Ethiopia’s Green Famine
How can a country be in famine when its fields are watered and green?
- Like most African countries, Ethiopia is also a net food importer, and the price of food on the global market has skyrocketed.
- The area is green, raining at times and crops are growing. Yet, people don't have enough food to eat.
- The land does not produce enough food for everyone to live on — and farmers cannot sell it or use it as collateral to take out a loan.
- 6.4 million people are in need of emergency assistance, and approximately 84,000 children will require therapeutic feeding between now and the end of the year.
Two years ago, I visited northern Ethiopia's historic trail, which included stops at Lake Tana, Gonder, Axum and Lalibela.
At the time, I was both entranced by Ethiopia's history as one of the foremost kingdoms of the ancient world — and overwhelmed by its poverty. Wherever I went, I was encircled by visibly malnourished children.
Over the past month, I went back to Ethiopia, but this time to the Southern Nations Nationalities Peoples Region (SNNPR) in the Great Rift Valley below Addis Ababa. What I saw did not differ that much from what I had seen in the north two years earlier.
The area is green, raining at times and crops are growing. Yet, people don't have enough food to eat. To cope, families are reducing their daily intake of food and selling off their livestock.
Children are migrating to surrounding towns and cities to find work and food. Out of a population of 82 million people, 6.4 million are in need of emergency assistance, and approximately 84,000 children will require therapeutic feeding between now and the end of the year.
Another 7.2 million people are already receiving food assistance from the government's safety net program. What is going on? Why are so many people going hungry?
The reasons vary by region, but basically come down to bad weather and high food prices, coupled with high birth rates and poor land management.
The delayed onset and poor performance of the March to May rains, combined with drought conditions the previous two planting periods, have resulted in below normal harvests throughout most of the country.
In addition, although Ethiopia has an agriculturally based economy, like most African countries, Ethiopia is also a net food importer — and the price of food on the global market has skyrocketed.
The reason for the high price of imported food includes bad weather in major food-producing countries, high petroleum prices and therefore rising fertilizer and transportation costs, which are then transferred onto the consumers.
The diversion of grain into biofuels and livestock feed are also factors in the increasingly high food prices globally — as are the trade policies of some countries. The poor are, of course, the least able to bear the increased cost. The average annual income in Ethiopia is $108 U.S. dollars.
Meanwhile, unlike in Ethiopia's famine of 1984, the international community now has the ability to reverse malnutrition in severely malnourished children almost immediately with a product called "plumpy’nut."
This is a high protein, high energy food designed by a French scientist in the late 1990s. It comes in a small tinfoil package and is now used in relief operations all over the world.
It is an amazing product because it is easy to transport, use and digest, and it reverses malnutrition in the severely malnourished within two to four weeks.
In one health center I visited, there was a mother with twins, one of whom was healthy and the other starving. If the child in question survives, and the statistics on plumpy’nut suggest it will, the two children could well grow up to be virtually indistinguishable in terms of their overall health.
Yet, how will these children grow up? The overall situation in Ethiopia is not likely to change anytime soon. Families are large. According to the CIA World Factbook, most households have six children. Jobs are scarce. Unemployment among Ethiopia's youth hovers around 60%.
The land does not produce enough food for everyone to live on, and farmers cannot sell it or use it as collateral to take out a loan because under the Constitution, all land belongs to the state, which provides long-term leases to the tenants. The price of imported food is also likely to remain high because the variables that make them high are not likely to change.
So what is Ethiopia to do? What will become of its children? I met a woman in another therapeutic care center who was herself fending off starvation with plumpy'nut.
She was 27 years old, but looked as though she was in her 40s. She worked as a maid in another family's house and was HIV positive.
When asked about her children, she said she had two, one of whom had been at the center but was now fine.
She paused — and then added that she was looking to give up her children because she could not take care of them.