Top UN aid official sounds warning on Ethiopia

September 2nd, 2008 | by addis portal |

ARBA MINCH, Ethiopia (AFP) — The top UN aid official John Holmes on Monday called for greater international efforts to help millions of Ethiopians suffering from a severe drought.

Some eight million people need urgent food relief and another 4.6 million need emergency assistance, accoring to the UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).

“The response has been good in some ways, but we have a long way to go,” said Holmes on his way to a southern Ethiopian region devastated by the drought.

The lack of rain in the main February to April wet season has left at least 75,000 Ethiopian children under age five at risk from malnutrition, OCHA said.

“In terms of the urgency of the food crisis, the risk of children dying of severe malnutrition is the most urgent,” Holmes said as he started a three-day visit.

The United Nations appealed in June for 325.2 million dollars mainly for drought victims . Only 52 percent of the appeal has been met.

Holmes visited the Southern Nationalities and People’s Region in the south and will on Tuesday tour the Somali region in the southeast.

In Arba Minch, some 500 kilometres (300 miles) south of the capital, the aid chief visited farmers, a feeding centre and food distribution centre.

Stunted and withered maize farms flanked the dusty road to Sorobo village — whose residents have dependend on relief aid for the past three decades — and where Holmes met local farmers.

“I have lost three previous harvests and hoped that this one would produce yield, but it hasn’t. I’m now waiting for emergency support to feed my family,” said 38-year-old farmer Kuse Gelebo as he slashed down withered maize stalks.

Holmes said relief operations were underway, “but we need to make sure it reaches averyone.”

“We need to make sure that it (food shortages) doesn’t degenerate into a famine that we’ve seen before,” he told reporters at a local school.

The UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF) representative in the impoverished African country said the effects of the failed rains and rampant food inflation may drag on.

“The previous rains failed badly. It is very clear that many people in Ethiopia will continue to face problems in terms of food security,” the official, Bjorn Ljungqvist, told AFP.

The southern region of Oromiya has also been badly hit, 6,700 children were diagnosed as suffering from severe malnutrition in early August.

Ethiopia suffered severe floods last year which destroyed most of the food crop. This year the drought has worsened the situation and food prices have soared 330 percent.

Unlike Sorobo, late rains in August have returned some greenery in Boricha, another town in southern Ethiopia, but the green maize fields belie the suffering of 200,000 residents eking out a living on dwindling reserves.

“It is very confusing. It is very green but you have people dying,” said Gemma Difilippo, a nurse at a local clinic run by Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF – Doctors With Borders).

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

Soaring commodity prices have worsened the crisis.

In May, the World Food Programme said the price of staples such as maize and sorghum had increased by 83 and 89 percent respectively in less than a year, while wheat increased by 54 percent between September 2007 and February 2008.

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

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