As you drive through southern Ethiopia and gaze out at miles and miles of fertile, lush valleys, it is difficult to imagine that so many people here and across Ethiopia are suffering from malnutrition. But they are.
The green grass and vegetable fields are deceiving. Look closer as you pass cows grazing by the side of the road and you see their ribs protruding, their weak legs shaking.
Here, they commonly call it “The Green Famine.”
Ethiopia, like the rest of Africa, goes through cycles of rainy and dry seasons; but the last two rainy seasons failed badly. That means crop yields were vastly lower than normal and there wasn’t enough food to last until the next harvest. Though the land may now be green - it is only approaching mid-harvest and the rainy season resumed in June - there’s not nearly enough food being produced to feed a population that is rapidly expanding (from 50 to 75 million in 15 years).
But cyclical drought is only part of the complicated equation. Droughts do occur, poor harvests do occur - after all, they call the period in between harvests the “hunger season”. Ethiopia is, unfortunately, accustomed to hunger. This year though, there are two new events buffeting the country. One is the cumulative effect of more frequent droughts; instead of once every 10 years they’re now once every 1-5 years. Global climate change is having a visible and severe impact on this region and its agriculture.
The other huge shock to Ethiopia’s system is food prices. Global price increases, coupled with a drop in the supply of food locally, have caused basic food items in Ethiopia to double, even quadruple in price. In the last year, a staple like teff, used to make the traditional bread called injera, has gone from 500 Birr per 100 kg bag (there are about 10 Birr to a dollar) to 1,200 Birr. Cooking oil has doubled in price, and lentils, also a staple here, have quadrupled from 4 Birr/kg to 17 Birr. That’s like your gallon of milk costing over $15.
Now most of us, faced with rising costs for the basics, try to cut back – drive less, cancel the HBO, charge to a credit card and hope to pay off the debt later. But when you’re already living at subsistence level there’s nowhere to cut back. So you’re forced to eat less. Eating less for a population that’s already vulnerable, that already lives on the edge of hunger, means many may fall over the edge into hunger, malnutrition and even death.
And as is often the case, it is kids who fall over the edge first.
I wrote recently about malnourished children in the Democratic Republic of Congo. There, it was a lack of food but more importantly of protein-rich food. So typically they suffered from kwashiorkor - their tummies were bloated with water and they didn’t want to eat.
Here in Ethiopia, the problem is there’s not enough food to be had. A woman I met said she fed her family one meal of cabbage that day and one meal of cabbage the day before. That was it. And cabbage has absolutely no protein.
Most of the kids here suffer from a lack of calories, what’s called marasmus: their limbs are practically just bones, they struggle to stand on their spindly legs, they’re irritable and cry inconsolably.
The scale of the malnutrition that has gripped parts of this country in just the last few months is alarming. UNICEF reports that 4.5 million Ethiopians are in need of emergency food relief, and that figure may even rise to 10 million in July. In International Medical Corps’ Outpatient Therapeutic Programs, where we care for the severely malnourished, the numbers of new admissions from January to April have almost tripled. The numbers also have nearly tripled at our Supplementary Feeding centers, where we treat the moderately malnourished.
While more and more kids don’t have enough basic food from farms and markets, IMC and other aid groups also don’t have enough of the therapeutic and blended food that we normally provide to the malnourished. The World Food Program likewise is running out of the rations it distributes in Ethiopia – their shortfall is around 180,000 metric tons, and the Ethiopian government’s emergency reserves are nearly depleted as well.
On one visit to an IMC feeding center, we arrived to find a crowd of about 500 parents and children. There wasn’t a single child who didn’t appear to be suffering. Some mothers silently held their children, resigned to the fact that there was little they could do; others pleaded for help. It was painful to see.
We’re facing a race against time. People need food now. At a meeting I attended here with USAID - the aid arm of the U.S. government – it was understood the relief groups need more money to be able to buy more food (whether it’s local or imported) and increase their staffs in response to the crisis.
As I write this, the skies have opened up, triggering a sudden downpour that lasts about 15 minutes. This has happened almost every day since I arrived here. The trouble is, while it makes the landscape green, it may be too late to bring the immediate relief that’s so desperately needed.