In normal times, the weekly market in Badessa town, Damot Woyde district of Wolayita zone in Ethiopia’s Southern Region, fills with fresh food as farmers and traders bring in crops from the surrounding hills.
Over the last few months, the main food sold in the market has been ‘kocho’, a strong-smelling, dough-like paste made from the processed roots and stems of enset, a member of the banana family of plants.
“Enset is the last food asset for most families in this region,” Tadesse Boda, a local resident told IRIN in the market on 25 August. “Seeing it in the market in such quantities means there is no other food to eat.”
Much of Wolayita suffered drought last year, followed by erratic rains that failed the ‘belg’ harvest of maize, millet, wheat, haricot bean and teff crops at a time when food prices were rising sharply.
Many have now pinned their hopes on rains in the area for the last two months, which turned the gardens of young maize, beans and wheat into verdant fields.
“I expect to harvest food that can last me at least six months,” Wegari Beyene, a mother-of-three explained as she waited to receive supplementary food for her youngest child at Badessa distribution centre. “I own a half hectare of land.”
One-year-old Abel Beyene had been on treatment for serious malnutrition for six weeks. “Once the food gets finished, I will sell firewood or work for someone to feed the children.”
Like Wegari, many people facing food shortages in the Southern Region have limited coping mechanisms, such as participation in the Productive Safety Nets Programme (see sidebar), and borrowing food or money. Others sell livestock cheaply, temporarily migrate to towns and cities, eat seed reserves, take children out of school or resort to cheap, basic diets.
|Ethiopia's Productive Safety Net Programme (PSNP), launched in 2005 as part of the government's Food Security Programme and designed to mark a gradual shift from emergency relief towards development, has won widespread international praise as a social protection instrument.
Under the programme, chronically food-insecure people are given food, cash, or a combination of the two to help them bridge production deficits without having to sell their modest assets in order to eat.
PSNP beneficiaries engage in community work such as road construction. The disabled and the elderly receive direct transfers. One setback with cash transfers is that rising costs mean the payments buy less and less food.
Some 7.2 million people in Ethiopia currently benefit from the PSNP. “The big question is whether we have enough in our own economy to be able to finance [it],” Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi recently told Time Magazine. “We have not reached that stage yet.”
“When you get people living on the edge, a shock like drought easily pushes them over,” Louise Finan of the NGO Concern Worldwide in Ethiopia said. “Then it brings them into the cycle of not being able to pull themselves out of it.”
Apart from the Southern Region, also called the SNNPR, several other areas of Ethiopia have equally suffered food shortages, say humanitarian workers. This is despite heavy rains in recent weeks.
The International Federation of the Red Cross (IFRC), for example, has revised its six-month emergency appeal to US$7.9 million to assist more than 76,000 people in Wolayita, while the Ethiopian Red Cross, which in May targeted 40,000 vulnerable people in Damot Pulasa, has added 36,000 more in neighbouring Damot Gale.
"Over the past two months the situation has worsened and living conditions have deteriorated. People have exhausted all their resources and are unable to feed themselves," Lorenzo Violante, IFRC's drought operations manager, said on 20 August.
Damot Gale and Damot Pulasa had more than 16,000 acutely malnourished children, of whom 1,614 were in intensive care in therapeutic centres.
According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in Ethiopia, food security and malnutrition continue to affect people living in most of Ethiopia’s drought affected regions.
The situation has, however, improved in some areas where the harvesting of green maize, teff and beans has started. Water is also more available in some areas due to recent main season 'kiremt' rainfall, OCHA said in a 25 August report.
Pockets of malnutrition
Photo: Erich Ogoso/IRIN
|Yohannes Bate, 40, and his malnourished 3-year old son Miserach Yohannes awaiting treatment at Girara therapeutic feeding centre near Badessa, Wolayita district|
The government admits food is short, but insists the situation is not out of control. “We have pockets of severe malnutrition in some districts in the south and an emergency situation in the Somali region,” Prime Minister Meles Zenawi told TIME magazine in an interview published on 18 August.
“It's not small to those who are suffering, but it is a manageable problem,” he added. “Famine has wreaked havoc in Ethiopia for so long; it would be stupid not to be sensitive to the risk of such things occurring. But there has not been a famine on our watch - emergencies, but no famines.”
The government, he added, was reforming agriculture to primarily focus on commercialisation of small-scale farms. There were also plans to improve seed varieties, irrigation and to increase private investment in large-scale operations.
But aid workers said the situation in many villages remained fluid. The large hunger gap this year, they pointed out, was largely a result of the 2007 failed rains. The worry now was whether the upcoming harvest starting in September would sufficiently meet existing needs.
The hunger season, which is the period between food running out and the next harvest, usually lasts six months. This year, it lasted longer. “We are seeing phase one; we are yet to see phase two,” said one NGO head in the capital, Addis Ababa.
|...When you get people living on the edge, a shock like drought easily pushes them over...|
The situation has been compounded by shortfalls in UN World Food Programme (WFP) supplies. Despite a national caseload of at least 4.6 million people, WFP has experienced pipeline breaks for all relief commodities and has been forced to reduce rations.
Currently, WFP’s total national shortfall stands at 170,000 MT valued at US$138.8 million. Yet the needs remain. For example, a June assessment by the NGO Samaritan’s Purse in Kedida Gamella district, Kembata Timbaro zone of Southern Region, found 10.7 percent of sampled children malnourished.
The district had 111,150 people of whom 22,236 were children under five.
“It is normal to have small areas of malnutrition during the hunger season, when people wait for the harvest,” Aaron White of Samaritan’s Purse told IRIN. “This year it is more widespread [mainly] because of failed rains.”
Over four weeks, the survey found, enset had become the staple food for 38.4 percent of the households, up from 21.6 percent. Some 63.2 percent of households reported sourcing their food from the market, while five percent had eaten ‘unusual’ food.
Five percent reported migrations to urban areas by family members and those eating one meal a day had increased. On the other hand, households eating three meals a day had decreased from 88.6 percent to 28.3 percent.
“Comparison between the sources of food in a normal year and the past four weeks, indicated a dramatic shift from own production to purchased food and other sources,” the NGO said.
Sources pointed to high global food prices, but insisted these had affected the response not the problem. “The government delayed, then under-described the problem. Still, it does not compare with 1984,” one said.
“The main problems are inadequate rains and too many people,” an aid worker said. “The population has doubled in the last 22 years from 41 to almost 80 million; people’s coping mechanisms have been eroded and many have got used to handouts over the years.”
There were also the questions of marketing and land ownership that needed to be addressed to encourage significant investment in farming. “As long as the people do not own the land, they will not invest in it,” one source said.