Drought threatens malnourished children in Ethiopia

Morbid thoughts linger on people's minds here. The crops have failed and farm animals have been dying amid severe drought that has left Ethiopia appealing for international help to feed its people.

On Sunday, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is set to visit some drought stricken locations in Ethiopia as the government and its humanitarian partners seek additional financial support.

Here, in the Dubti area of Ethiopia's Afar region, one of the hardest-hit regions, the river that runs through is slowly drying up, leaving this normally hot and arid land even worse off. Some worry that children may start dying next.

"My child is severely malnourished to the point that he could no more do breast feeding," said Fatuma Hussein, a 30-year-old mother who has spent two months at a local clinic trying to get her child treated for malnutrition. Health officials said her child's condition was serious because the mother had no food left at home and had been sharing the enriched food provided to her weak son with her older children.

"They are asking me to stay at the clinic until my son's condition improves. But I couldn't. If I stay here, the rest of my children will die. If Allah choses to take his life then let it be," she said.

The Ethiopian government and aid agencies say El Nino conditions triggered drought in Ethiopia that has left more than 10 million people food insecure, and it is estimated that there will be at least 400,000 cases of severe malnutrition among children under age 5 in the country soon. Only a third of the $1.2 billion needed for emergency food assistance in the country has been raised.

"I have been here in the country for 19 years and I have seen a lot of droughts. But I have never seen one as serious as this," said John Graham, director of operations in Ethiopia for Save the Children. "Some analysts think the situation is even more severe than the 1984 famine with more people affected this time. But the situation is different. The then government was a big part of the problem whereas the current one has acknowledged the problem early and has put a lot of its own resources. That's why we are not witnessing people dying."

Ethiopia, once known for epic famines, has been trying to shake off the African stereotypes of poverty and scarcity, investing millions of dollars in infrastructure and energy projects that highlight the government's ambition for modernity. Ethiopia's famine in the 1980s was so severe it spawned the 1985 Live Aid concert to raise funds to combat it.

Although the country has since increased capacity to feed itself, the threat of hunger and starvation remains.

The U.N. said this week that El Niño conditions reduced crop yields by 50 to 90 per cent in Ethiopia. In the Afar region, health officials are talking about a catastrophe if aid does not arrive soon.

Kedir Abate, a medical director at the Megenta Clinic in Afar, said 20 to 30 severely malnourished children are brought to the facility each week, with the number of moderately malnourished children rising so fast he fears they could slip into the severely malnourished category soon.

"Both children and pregnant mothers are in a high-risk situation here. The past two months have been the most difficult," he said.

In December, the U.S. government announced it would give $88 million to help feed hungry people in areas experiencing drought, bringing the total number of humanitarian aid provided to the country in 2015 to more than $435 million. Other countries like the U.K. have also given substantial sums.

Yet some say they have yet to receive aid, or enough of it.

"We are getting (nothing) or very little help in this area. I fear that people could start dying if aid doesn't come soon," Sheikh Hamed Dawud, deputy administrator of the Megenta area, said. "Animals are dying and crops have failed. We have nothing left here."

Aid agencies say demand for aid delivery elsewhere in the world means there is less attention given to Ethiopia.

"There is a great deal of strain on the international humanitarian system and on Save the Children's humanitarian work as well," Carolyn Miles, Save the Children's president, told AP by email, citing the Syria crisis.