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Deadly Drought in Africa

June 9, 2000 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: Drought has stricken the Horn of Africa once again. Six countries are reporting a severe lack of rain. The hardest-hit area, Southeastern Ethiopia has seen no substantial rain for three years. International relief officials are now warning that the drought could trigger wide-spread famine in Ethiopia, just 15 years after a devastating famine killed one million people there in the mid-1980s.

The United Nations has been soliciting food aid from other countries since January try to stave off such a disaster. The person in charge of that effort is Catherine Bertini, executive director of the UN World Food program and the UN Secretary-General’s special envoy to the Horn of Africa. She recently returned from a tour of the region.

Welcome, Miss Bertini. Tell us first what you saw on the ground, particularly in Ethiopia, in terms of the impact that this drought is having.

CATHERINE BERTINI, UN World Food Program: When we visited, we saw hundreds, perhaps thousands, mostly women and children who had migrated to the Godet area in Southeastern Ethiopia looking for food and water. They are families of pastoralists, people who make their living raising animals. And they are the people most at risk because they have to find food and water both for themselves and their animals. Many of the children were relatively healthy, but also there were children in special feeding centers who were malnourished, and we unfortunately learned that some had died; in the month of March, for instance about 300 deaths were recorded. And most of the deaths were due to diarrhea or upper respiratorial diseases, and measles. They were things that were preventable. When people are weak for lack of food, they’re much more susceptible to disease.

MARGARET WARNER: Is there absolutely no water in wells, anywhere?

CATHERINE BERTINI: There aren’t a lot of wells in this particular region, and there’s such limited water it’s very difficult to find. We are appealing through the United Nations appeal, in fact, for more assistance with drilling equipment and with bringing in water and water purification tablets in order to help.

MARGARET WARNER: How many people do you estimate have died already, say this year because of the situation?

CATHERINE BERTINI: Well, we think that the numbers are not in the thousands but it’s very difficult to make an actual estimate. We know that the height was probably in March, because people were very close to the end of their coping mechanisms, at least from looking at the past statistics. And we hope now that there’s enough aid going in and enough of these special supplemental feeding centers that people are finding the food and the other necessities to stay alive.

MARGARET WARNER: Just one other question on the scope of the problem before we get to the aid. How many people do you estimate are in danger of starvation potentially?

CATHERINE BERTINI: Well, we estimate in Ethiopia that there are 10 million people at risk, and they are mostly in the southeastern part of the country as well as in the Tigre area through the center of the country, and these are people at risk because of the drought. And people that we saw were facing the worst problems, but we believe that so many people are at the end of their coping mechanisms, because the drought has been going on for so long that people no longer have the animals that they need in order to sustain their lives, the water, the food, they’ve been selling off animals, selling anything else that might be of value in order to get food and to try to find water.

MARGARET WARNER: So now how many families or how many people are you in the World Food Program feeding now every day?

CATHERINE BERTINI: We’ve been feeding about 2.2 million people each day through the World Food Program, the government also has bilateral programs. Last year the programs were fully funded, this year up until now they’ve been about 80% funded for food, but we’ve just put out a new appeal, we need an additional almost $200 million of food, and health care, medical care, water, water equipment, water supplies, and we think with those we can save these 10 million lives.

MARGARET WARNER: Why has the response from the international community been less than you had hoped?

CATHERINE BERTINI: Well, it’s been less primarily for what we call the non-food items. In representing the Secretary-General, who wanted us to make a very strong statement about the needs, we found that the biggest needs were in these nonfood items, and that donors weren’t coming forth as much as they might to help provide drilling equipment, water purification, health care and vaccinations and basic, basic health items. And this is critical. Why exactly I don’t know. But we’re appealing to donors to be very generous.

MARGARET WARNER: There are reports that Ethiopia’s border war with Eritrea, which it’s been waging for a couple of years, spends about a million dollars a day by most estimates on the war has made some countries, particularly some European countries, reluctant to give a lot of aid, because they say, well, money is fungible, and the Ethiopian government is wasting all this money on this war. How much of a factor is that? How much does that complicate your effort?

CATHERINE BERTINI: Countries have said that they don’t want to give development aid to Ethiopia, some countries have said this, because of the war. But we are fortunate that on the humanitarian side every major donor takes the position that we have to keep people alive, and that when we see people suffering and people dying, which is unacceptable in this world, that if we have the means to do something about it, we must. We must help keep people alive, and we don’t have the luxury of deciding whether or not we like what the government is doing. If we did make decisions on that basis, unfortunately there would be millions of people dying throughout the world for lack of food. We can’t let that happen, and fortunately the governments agree, including the U.S., who has contributed about 50 percent of the total need so far.

MARGARET WARNER: Can you guarantee – are you being asked to guarantee and can you guarantee — that the food or nonfood aid, the trucks aren’t being diverted to the war effort?

CATHERINE BERTINI: Some of the trucks have been, and this has caused a problem. In fact, we’ve had some cases where the trucks have been on their way with food, they’ve stopped, the food’s been unloaded and saved for the proper purposes, but then the trucks have been diverted. And we have some problems with the trucks due to the war effort. But through the World Food Program and through the United Nations general logistics operation, which WPF manages, we are trying to manage much of the logistics operations and be able to better supervise this distribution of trucks within the country.

MARGARET WARNER: Why do you think we see another famine or another potential famine so soon after the last one? After the last one the international aid community vowed never again would we let it get to this point, and just 15 years later, here Ethiopia is again. What’s happening? Is it weather, climate, what is it?

CATHERINE BERTINI: It’s a very arid climate, it’s very dry. The land cracks just because it’s so dry, and even cracks cause problems because the animals can’t cross from one part of the land to the other. So there’s been a lot of effort, actually, in this part of the world through development in order to make a difference with erosion, with erosion control, with agricultural development, with filling these cracks, for instance, but there are still– it’s a very poor country and very dry. So unfortunately, these problems are with us.

Now, when the Secretary-general asked me to look into the current drought, he also said that he wanted us to be very proactive before thousands of people died, and I believe that the UN and the donors have been very proactive. One death is too many, but we really are working very hard not only to provide the assistance through the donor contributions, but to distribute it equitably and to the people who need it. The Secretary-general also created a task force to look into exactly the issue that you asked, what can we do over the long term in order to better help these countries in this region cope with the reoccurring droughts?

MARGARET WARNER: Miss Bertini, thank you very much, and good luck.