Up to 6 million children under the age of five are at risk of malnutrition in Ethiopia because of rising grain prices and the failure of rains, the UN’s children agency, UNICEF, has warned.
Dry spells across much of the country since last September have led to big food shortages, humanitarian agencies say. In recent weeks the effects have become visible, with increases in cases of the condition kwashiorkor and severe acute malnutrition, particularly in southern Ethiopia, where 126,000 children require urgent therapeutic treatment.
John Holmes, the UN’s undersecretary general for humanitarian affairs and emergency relief coordinator, said he was deeply concerned by Ethiopia’s food insecurity, the worst since the drought-related humanitarian crisis in 2003.
With crops expected to fail following a poor rainy season this spring, which in good years allows farmers to produce a second crop, the situation is expected to worsen.
“We will need a rapid scaling up of resources, especially food and nutritional supplies, to make increased life-saving aid a reality,” Holmes said.
Samuel Akale, a nutritionist with the government’s disaster prevention agency, warned that the situation would get worse.
“The number of severely malnourished will increase, and then they’ll die,” he told reporters.
Ethiopia has made gains in reducing dependency on food relief and has cut its infant mortality rate by a quarter over the past five years. But with poverty still widespread and the country host to 80 million people, the second-largest population in sub-Saharan Africa, it remains deeply susceptible to the weather’s vagaries.
The World Food Programme (WFP) says that in addition to the 8 million people supported by a long-term food safety net system, at least 3.4 million people are in need of emergency humanitarian aid. It appealed for an urgent response from donors, citing a 183,000-tonne food shortfall, which would cost US$147 million to bridge.
UNICEF is asking for US$50 million, but there are concerns that the international focus on disasters in China and Myanmar will see the appeal fall short. An earlier request for US$20 million to fund its emergency nutrition program raised US$1 million.
The worst hit areas are the Southern Nations, Nationalities and People’s Region, the Somalia region and Oromiya, where the number of severely malnourished children admitted to one UNICEF-supported hospital increased from 26 to 61 over the past week.
Livestock losses are also growing.
There is also increasing concern about the northern regions of Afar, Amhara and Tigray, where crop failure is expected following disappointing rains.
Rising global costs of fuel, fertilizers and staple foods are compounding the problem, especially for the poorest Ethiopians.
In the six months to February, the price of corn and sorghum nearly doubled, the WFP said, while wheat jumped by 54 percent.
“The food supply in markets is limited and many people cannot afford to buy what is needed for their families,” WFP spokesman Peter Smerdon said. “They are having to resort to extreme survival strategies.”
Nearby countries are experiencing similar difficulties in coping with drought.
About 600,000 people in Uganda’s eastern Karamoja region are receiving food aid, while more than 2 million Somalis, many of them displaced by war, are reliant on humanitarian relief.