Millions threatened by drought in Ethiopia

Shurame Ibira is six years old, and even after nine days of emergency treatment against malnutrition, still weighs less than 9kg.

Her father, Ibira Tunsissa, nestled the girl on his lap, wrapped in a cotton blanket, in a clinic in the Ethiopian town of Boricha. The girl is one of millions of victims of a major drought that threatens the lives of millions in the African nation.

“She is very sick. They say she has growth retardation,” the young father says desperately.
“She might need to be moved to a hospital due to her multiple complications.”

The Yirba clinic in Boricha, about 300km south of Addis Ababa, has handled scores of locals seeking treatment for hunger-related illness.

Failed rains in the main February to April wet season left another 75 000 children under the age of five fighting malnutrition and eight million of the Horn of Africa’s 81-million people are in need of food aid, according to the United Nations humanitarian agency.

“I don’t want to see my daughter die,” said Dare Lanqama, holding a severely malnourished three-year-old child. “I just hope the treatment she is receiving will make her get better.”

On the first of a three-day visit to Ethiopia on Monday, the UN’s top aid official, John Holmes, said: “The risk of children dying of severe malnutrition is the most urgent” priority.

The UN Children’s Fund (Unicef) representative in the impoverished country said the effects of the drought and high food prices would drag on.

“It is very clear that many people in Ethiopia will continue to face problems in terms of food security,” the official, Bjorn Ljungqvist, said.

A short rainfall in early August returned some greenery to the maize fields around Boricha, but many of the 200 000 residents are still eking out a living on dwindling reserves.

“It is very confusing. It is very green but you have people dying,” said Gemam Difilippo, a nurse from a clinic run by the Médecins sans Frontières group.

Tens of thousands of Boricha residents queue for relief food at distribution sites. Of the 45 000 people in need, only 38 000 are receiving aid due to low government supplies, according to private groups.

“We are constantly involved in conflict with recipients since we have to decide who we should hand out food aid to due to shortages,” said Tesfaye Bekele, a government official in charge of the town’s food safety programme.

In June, the UN appealed for $325,2-million for the drought victims, but has received only about half the amount, said the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

With no quick solution in sight, residents are banking on this month’s harvest, but they doubt it will alleviate their misery.

“We used to get 30 quintals [300kg] of maize from our land. Now we only got 10 due to the rain failure,” said Anero Argo, a farmer. “We are down to our last stocks. I’ll have to find another job if it [rain] fails again in September.”

In recent years, Ethiopia has suffered alternate flood and drought disasters that have affected millions of people.

“The rains have failed. The drought has damaged our crops, we have nothing to eat,” said Ibira.

“We are waiting for the September harvest—if it doesn’t yield enough our suffering will continue.”

Aid groups say the country is unlikely to receive the response it did in 2003, when it faced a more severe drought that affected 12-million people. But for the victims any help would do.

“We would accept anything anyone would offer. We just need more help,” said Dare as she cradled her ailing daughter.—AFP

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