20 million are at risk of famine in East Africa

May 14, 1994|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,Sun Staff Writer

The specter of a major famine has reappeared in Africa.

Some 20 million people are at risk, mainly in the Horn of Africa and East Africa, according to officials from the U.S. Agency for International Development (AID), the United Nations, and private agencies such as Catholic Relief Services.

Concern has been voiced that the international community will be unable to mobilize enough food to meet the growing demand. Pledges from donor countries have not come near the requirement of about 3 million metric tons of relief food.

Pat Johns, coordinator for Africa at the CRS headquarters here, said that 1.3 million Eritreans face severe malnutrition or starvation.

Because it failed to rain in the highlands of Eritrea in January, the February crop was almost entirely lost. If rain does not fall by June, more than a million people may be on the move this summer across the lunar plains of Africa's newest state, searching for food.

To forestall such a march, CRS estimates that about 200,000 tons of food will be required.

That much is not available. And there are shortfalls elsewhere.

In southern Sudan, 1.3 million Eritreans are at risk.

In Ethiopia, according to the United Nations, some 3 million rural people are affected by drought and pest damage to their crops. There are also 1.4 million displaced people there.

Food needs for Ethiopia for this year are estimated at 1 million metric tons, about the same amount required to fight the great famine of 1984-1985. About 470,000 tons has been pledged, according to Mr. Johns. Most of that has been promised by the United States.

Other countries in the region confronting severe food shortages are Djibouti, Burundi and Rwanda. The principal factors contributing to these situations are drought, pest infestation of crops and civil strife or war.

With the possibility the new conflict in Yemen might exacerbate the plight of the countries in the horn, AID has sent a team into the warring countries to assess the danger of such a development, said an AID official.

Said Nan Borton, director of the U.S. Office of Foreign Disaster Relief: "The situation is worsening in most countries. The drought situation has worsened in Ethiopia and Eritrea, and possibly Djibouti."

She added: "It has gotten somewhat better in Uganda and Kenya, and in Tanzania," owing to recent rain in afflicted areas.

"The situation has absolutely fallen apart in terms of Rwanda, with the enormous dislocation of people," she said. "They are clearly going to miss their planting season, and the standing crops have been burned."

Ms. Borton said the total number of people at risk, which her office now estimates at 19.4 million, almost definitely will rise as soon as an accurate count is made of the Rwandan refugees.

"I've heard every figure from 60,000 to a million," she said.

In Somalia, however, only about 100,000 people face severe food shortages, a low number she attributed to the impact of the U.N./U.S. intervention there ordered by President George Bush.

CRS is the largest feeding agency operating in Eritrea, a small country of about 4 million on the coast of the Red Sea.

Eritrea became a formally established state only last May, but won its independence in 1991 after a 30-year war to break from Ethiopia.

Mr. Johns, who spent three years there, sees the war as one of the primary causes of the current situation.

"What we're dealing with is the aftermath of that war, the complete degradation of the environment. It's a very mountainous area. The people have chopped the trees down; there's not a bush. The war ended in 1991, and not enough has been done to correct these environmental problems so this doesn't continue."

Few reforestation programs have been put into place, he added, few rain catchment dams built.

According to Mr. Johns: "Right now we are facing a food shortage. Our donor pledges have not tallied with what we've been looking for" in Eritrea. With about 130,000 tons promised from the United States and Europe for Eritrea, the agency is about 35 percent short of its projected need.

CRS has 45,000 tons in hand, with about half that already in the country. "Our strategy is to get the food moving so people don't start moving to urban settings," such as the capital city, Asmara, said Mr. Johns.

David Palasits, the CRS country coordinator in Eritrea, reached by phone, called the situation in Eritrea an "incipient crisis." He said there was as yet no starvation, but signs of severe malnutrition in Barka and Senhit provinces.

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