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Update From East Africa: People Pushed To The Brink

Canadian Foodgrains Bank executive director Jim Cornelius is on a study leave in Kenya and Ethiopia. Last week he sent this observation from southern Ethiopia, which is experiencing its worst food crisis in 60 years.

Unlike the major Ethiopia famines in 1972 and 1984, which were concentrated in the northern highlands of Ethiopia, this food crisis is located in the eastern and southern parts of the country, and in quite a different context.

The most acute crisis is among the pastoralists – people who depend on livestock for their livelihood, and agro-pastoralists – people who make their living through a mix of farming and livestock herding. They have faced consecutive failed rains, which has adversely affected the pasture and water their livestock depend on, and from which they derive milk and income. For them, the situation is quite extreme.

The picture in the affected food-cropping zones is a little less clear. The crops in these zones benefi t from both the belg, or short rains, which were poor and failed in some areas, and the kremt, or long rains, which are just beginning. Many households depend on the short rains for critical crops to get them through to the maize harvest after the long rains. Unfortunately, the sweet potato crop – which is a critical transition food – has failed in many areas.

The area I visited in the south was certainly facing a late and poor crop, but there was food available in the short term. There just won’t be enough even if the long rains and second harvest are good.

In visiting and meeting with poor households in southern Ethiopia in recent weeks, I was reminded how precarious their livelihoods can be. They work extremely hard to produce food on degraded land, manage livestock in a harsh environment with limited pasture, and earn additional income through various activities. Even in good years life is tough. When nature turns against them and the rains fail or are late – as has now happened – they don’t have a lot of reserves to help get them through the year.

The Canadian Foodgrains Bank, through its members, and with the support of the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), has been doing much work with communities across Ethiopia to strengthen their livelihoods, rehabilitate the environment and fertility of the soil, and build up household assets – things that can help people survive a crisis.

Right now, those we have helped are pushed to the brink. Assistance is needed to not only save lives of people with no food, but also to help protect the progress that has been made for those who are not yet in a desperate situation.

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