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Ethiopia Facing World's 'Most Urgent' Food Crisis

Nicholas Benequista

A malnourished boy is portrayed at a feeding centre in Damota Pulassa, southern Ethiopia. UN humanitarian chief John Holmes has urged Ethiopia to grant aid groups access to conflict zones in the southern Ogaden region where the army is battling a rebel group. (AFP/File/Jose Cendon)

ADDIS ABABA - The most pressing food crisis in the world at present is in Ethiopia, according to John Holmes, the United Nations' under-secretary general for humanitarian affairs.

Holmes is on a three-day visit to Ethiopia to witness the efforts by the Ethiopian government, UN agencies, and international aid organizations to attend to the needs of more than 10 million people facing food shortages in the Horn of Africa country.

"In terms of the urgency of the food crisis and in terms of the immediate risk of children dying, I don't think there's another crisis like this one," Holmes said during a flight to the southern epicenter of Ethiopia's crisis.

Ethiopian farmers and livestock herders are being hit with both a drought and skyrocketing food prices; in some areas, food prices have quintupled in just a year. At the same time, the global spike in food and fuel prices has hampered relief efforts by cutting the purchasing power of the World Food Program in half. With scarce resources to attend to the emergency in Ethiopia, families rescued from hunger often fall back into crisis.

On the first day of his trip to Ethiopia, Holmes visited a feeding center where dozens of women waited to have their children weighed -- a chance for free life-saving rations of a nutrient rich peanut paste, but only for those sick enough. Many return week after week. In all, the United Nations estimates that 75,000 children are at risk of starving to death in Ethiopia.

Though Ethiopia has posted double-digit economic growth over the last five years, most of its farmers remain dependant on rainfall. The country's pastoralists, who migrate with their animals to find verdant pasture, are also at the mercy of weather. In some parts of the country, three consecutive rainy seasons have failed.


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Earlier in the day, one farmer, standing in a field of stunted maize, told Holmes he had planted seeds four times this year in hope of rain. Each time, the rains never came.

Until they do, international donors will have to provide support, said Holmes. Yet Ethiopia is still asking countries like the United States and United Kingdom for an extra $140 million, and that figure is likely to rise this month when the government releases revised estimates of its humanitarian needs.

"One of the problems is that there are these problems arising all over the world," Holmes said. "Donors' pockets are not bottomless and therefore the resources are more limited than they would be in other circumstances."

The global rise in food prices may force more than 100 million people back into extreme poverty worldwide, according to reports by the World Bank and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.


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