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10 million people facing food emergency in Ethiopia as El Nino bites

A girl walks past the carcasses of goats in drought-stricken Ethiopia, where 10 million people are thought to be at risk. Photo: Seifu Asseged/Save The Children UK A farmer in his barren field in Sewena, Bale Zone, Ethiopia. Photo: Kyle DeGraw/Save The Children UK

Two-year-old Seid eats high nutrient peanut paste provided by Save the Children’s Health Extension Worker. Photo: Kyle DeGraw/Save the Children UK

The toll from Ethiopia’s worst drought in 50 years is escalating, with officials dramatically increasing their estimate for the number of people facing critical food shortages.

Two months ago the Ethiopian government said about 8.2 million people would be in need of emergency food assistance in 2016, but this week it lifted the estimate to 10.1 million. Aid agency Save the Children estimates about 5.75 million Ethiopian children will be affected by the worsening food crisis.

The El Nino effect – caused by warming sea surface temperatures in the Pacific Ocean – has been blamed for the failure of this year’s rains across a large portion of Ethiopia, triggering what the United Nations calls a “slow onset” emergency. El Nino has also caused a drought in Papua New Guinea and unusually warm, dry weather across much of .

The Ethiopian government had allocated over $US200 million ($273.7 million) of its own resources to emergency relief so far this year but in the latest humanitarian assessment, published this week, it calls on the international community “to stand with the people of Ethiopia at their time of need”. It says the emergency response will cost another $US1.4 billion.

John Graham, Save the Children’s country director in Ethiopia, said previous droughts in the Horn of Africa region had shown how the early provision of support can save lives and money.

“We simply cannot sit back and wait until the situation has reached crisis point this time,” he said.

The Famine Early Warning System Network (FEWS NET), which is backed by the US government, has already classified parts of eastern Ethiopia in a food security “emergency”, one notch below famine. It says Ethiopia has the “largest acutely food insecure population in the world” and that a significant number of people are already “unable to access adequate food for survival and face an increased risk of malnutrition and mortality”.

It is three decades since a drought-induced famine in Ethiopia shocked the world and created a new brand of celebrity activism with Band Aid in 1984 and the Live Aid concerts in 1985.  The Ethiopian economy has grown significantly in recent years but is still exposed to drought because of its heavy dependency on rain-fed agriculture.

Ethiopia’s population has grown by more than 40 per cent in the past decade, to almost 100 million.

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