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Stranded – Ethiopia’s struggle to feed the needy

Yonas Merga
February 19, 2016

Humanitarian agencies have warned of food shortage for people affected by El Nino in Ethiopia. The agencies said they are running out of funds which could make the situation worse. Finding the required food is not easy.

Äthiopien Hunger Hungerhilfe
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/M. Ayene

Humanitarian agencies and Ethiopian authorities, struggling to deliver emergency food aid to 10 million people affected, are not only up against (the adverse weather phenomenon) El Nino. Equally challenging are the logistics involved as much-needed aid is stranded in the port of neighboring Djibouti, the life-line hub for the land-locked Horn of Africa country.

In December 2015, the government appealed for 1.5 million metric tonnes of emergency food to feed its population of some 90 million. In response, up to 20 ocean-going vessels are now headed towards Djibouti Port, says John Aylieff, Country Director of the World Food Program (WFP). While the UN food agency also makes use of the smaller Berbera Port in Somaliland, Djibouti, with its 3,500 year history as a strategic hub between Europe, Asia and Africa, is the obvious - if hugely challenging - choice.

The logistics of food aid

Port of Djibouti
Ethiopia is land locked. Food deliveries come via Port of DjiboutiImage: AP

In a normal year, 70% of the seaport's activity consists of freight movements to and from Ethiopia. With the additional moving of food aid, resources are stretched to the limit, Emebet Shawol of Ethiopia's Shipping and Logistics Services Enterprise (ESLSE) shipping line told DW: “The escalating frequency of ships arriving at Djibouti port, coupled with only very few docking places, is creating big problems,” she says. Her company, operating more than twelve vessels and eight dry ports across the country, has been busy transporting food aid since October 2015 when the magnitude of the hunger crisis could no longer be overlooked.

To ease the problem, Shawol said, the ships are made to discharge their freight more swiftly, so that heavy trucks and trains can transport the goods to the dry ports.

Ethiopia's highest-ranking official in the fight against drought and hunger, Mitiku Kassa, told DW the government has given priority for food aid and fertilizers by setting aside a special dock at the seaport.

But it's a fight against time nonetheless: Sourcing from food donations and stocks, WFP has been delivering relief food rations, including cereals, pulses, beans and cooking oil, to some 7.6 million people. “That package is really to save and sustain lives during this crisis”, Aylieff said. “Because these people, the ones we are targeting, really have nothing else to live on at the moment.”

Although WFP is buying additional food from local farmers in some areas that have surplus, and from traders in the region, Aylieff says it is only a fraction of the required 180,000 tonnes per month. And it's not just about food, any food. The food agency is particularly concerned about the funding shortage to buy beans or pulses - food items that are rich in protein and help mitigate hunger-related effects in the human body. According to UNICEF, 435,000 children are already in need of treatment for acute malnutrition.

Cashing in on the food crisis?

Once discharged, a fleet of lorries transports the foodstuffs from the seaport to the nearest forward bases inside Ethiopia, an arduous journey of 380 and 750 kilometres respectively. Freight cargo company TransEthiopia alone operates 453 freight trucks with a capacity to transport over 19,000 tons at once, according to its managing director Teferi Zewudu. The government has in the past denied accusations it benefits from the recurrent food crises through companies affiliated with the ruling EPRDF party. There have also been allegations that the government has in the past diverted aid money for political campaigns.

Äthiopien Schlimmste Hungersnot seit 30 Jahren
Government denies allegations of benefiting from the food crisisImage: Reuters/T. Negeri

“The government needs to free funds by cutting down on megaprojects, not touching basic services like education and health in the process," Dessalegn Rahmato, food security and development consultant, told DW from the capital Addis Ababa. Commissioner of Disaster Relief, Mitiku Kassa says his government has tabled 14 billion Ethiopian Birr (some 590 million euros) to parliament to control the crisis.

Up to now, Ethiopia has received only 46 percent of the 1.4 billion US dollars the government pleaded for. “The food that the government and WFP have now, having spent all the funds from donors, will only last until the end of April” says WFP's John Aylieff. "We are standing on a cliff edge.”