As Ethiopia remains caught in a deadly cycle of drought and famine, aid agencies warn that erratic rainfall and ever-rising food costs are compounding the problems carried over from last year's drought to leave 6.2 million people in need of food assistance, on top of the 7.5 million already getting aid from the government.
Close to 14 million Ethiopians 20% of the country's total population now have difficulty finding enough to eat, including, according to UNICEF, 62,000 children under five in the worst-affected areas who received treatment for severe acute malnutrition during the first half of 2009. And that number is set to rise. "There are growing concerns about the impact of relief food shortfalls on already vulnerable children," UNICEF said on Aug. 6. "As therapeutic feeding programs reach more hot-spot districts, the number of severely malnourished children receiving treatment will increase." The U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) says the problem in the ethnic Somali region, Ogaden, is complicated even further due to "insurgent activity and security operations" that are disrupting trade networks and the movement of people and livestock.
Reports of rising numbers of nutrition-related deaths and illnesses in Ethiopia are coming out amid tense times for humanitarian organizations, who face various obstacles in their attempts to deal with the effects of the drought. Unlike in previous years, the current crisis is not getting much play in the media. Part of the reason could be that after last year's drought put Ethiopia in the headlines, the country's government no fan of negative attention decided this time to take matters of food relief into its own hands, pushing international NGOs to the sidelines. "Giving publicity to the issue angered the government so much that this year they decided to handle most of the activities by themselves, far away from the spotlight of non-governmental actors," a coordinator of a European NGO (who requested anonymity) tells TIME.
Earlier this year, Ethiopia's parliament passed a tough new law seeking to regulate charities and foreign humanitarian groups in the country. The law, which labels as foreign any local organization that gets more than 10% of its funding from abroad, restricts charity work on issues related to gender, ethnicity, children's rights and conflict resolution, and bars advocacy activities. The government says the law is meant to ensure that charities focus on development, but many fear it will deter those working in the field from taking bold actions like advocating for the hungry.
International aid organizations are also struggling with a shortage of supplies. So far this year, donors have contributed a total in cash and kind of almost $176 million, equivalent to 271,000 metric tons of food less than 50% of last year's contributions. Many aid workers blame the financial crisis, but while recession-hit donors are keeping their wallets closed, the situation in Ethiopia is only getting more urgent.
Ethiopia's rain-fed agriculture is "shockingly vulnerable" to small variations in the patterns of rainfall, says one Western diplomat, and the country has no chance to recover from the last drought before the next one hits. "The impact of last year works through this year," says Jolanda Hogenkamp, the World Food Program's Deputy Head of Programs in Ethiopia. "The picture we see now is more or less the same as last year. Largely the same numbers and same areas."
Another top Western diplomat puts it more plainly: "This year's problem is very serious because last year's was serious." And with aid funding drying up and the Ethiopian government restricting help from NGOs, next year can only be more serious still.