JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight the dire situation in Ethiopia. Betty Ann Bowser narrates this report that was initially originally shot for the High Definition Network - HDNET.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: It is a painful cycle that takes place almost every seven years in Ethiopia: Drought followed by famine and death. So at feeding centers like this one in the southern part of the country, anxious parents desperately try to get emergency food and medicine for their sick and starving children.
This little girl's name is Hamdiya; she weighs six-and-a-half pounds, about the weight of an average American newborn. But Hamdiya is one year old. She is extremely malnourished. Nevertheless, she is one of the lucky ones. Most of the 450,000 acutely malnourished children never make it to a feeding center. Mary Lewellen is the mission director for the U.S. Agency for International Development.
MARY LEWELLEN: If you talk to a mother who has gone into the therapeutic feeding centers and ask if you have other children at home, the answer is yes. But she could only carry the one or two children on her back to get the feeding center because she's had to walk for four hours. She has had to make a decision as to which child she brought into the therapeutic feeding center, which child was going to live today or get fed today. Those are hard things to listen to as a parent, as a mother, and as an individual.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Tens of thousands of Ethiopian children have already died this year. They are victims of a family minimum that many think could prove to be as deadly as the infamous one of 1984, which killed one million people. Getachew Dinku is a relief worker with World Vision.
GETACHEW DINKU, World Vision: This area is very severely affected by drought. It's very frequently affected, one of the most severely affected areas in the entire country. And in the total district, you have over 200,000 people. The majority of them like more than half of them are affected by the drought. They have nothing to drink, no food as such.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: This latest food shortage was caused by long periods of drought which began three years ago. When the rains did come, it was too late for the crops to bear fruit. So even though some of the countryside looks lush with vegetation, there's nothing to eat. Ethiopians call it "green famine."
MARY LEWELLEN: When you drove down the road you would see blooming crops, corn head high. We thought there's not a problem. The problem is when you stopped your vehicle, got out and walked over into the field, pulled an ear of corn off the stalk, there was nothing on it. The rains had either come late or too erratic, but had not been there during the critical time of pollination.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: The famine is father exacerbated by poverty in this country. The average Ethiopian earns an annual income of $100. The only way for 12 million Ethiopians to survive then is to rely is to rely on food aid from other countries. Food aid has begun to pour in, about 1.5 million metric tons so far. More than half of that comes from the United States. Relief workers say food stretches further in Ethiopia than in most places. The grain in this bowl is both breakfast and lunch.
MARY LEWELLEN: There's a saying within Ethiopia, "you eat alone, you die alone." When the family receives rations, they share it amongst all of the others who need food. In one area that we visited, we were told the official caseload, beneficiary numbers, were approximately 20,000, but they were feeding 127,000.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Yet still there is not enough to eat. The Ethiopian government put out a plea for an additional 250,000 tons of food aid. Professor Deryke Belshaw directs the Institute for Development Research in Oxford, England
DERYKE BELSHAW: There are 65 million people in this country, and if you calculate the aid per head, it is one of the lowest in Africa despite the obvious need for assistance at this stage.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Belshaw and others believe that the only way Ethiopians will be able to break the cycle of drought, famine and starvation is for developed rather than food handouts. Most Ethiopians are subsistence farmers. During normal weather patterns they grow just enough food to survive. But in times of drought they have no room for reserve. They harvest food before it's grown to stave off hunger. They sell off equipment to get money for food and are able to afford fertilizer and seed for the next growing sickle. Development experts say instead of subsistence farming, they need to move to market agriculture, which requires seed voucher programs, veterinary medicine, the construction of wells and dams, and improved transport and storage.
SPOKESPERSON: That over there is eggplant. Next to it that beautiful plant coming up is cabbage, and right above it is head lettuce.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: It's something being done on a small scale with much success through a program called Project Mercy. It was founded in 1977 by Ethiopians in a remote part of Ethiopia: Its mission to develop self-help programs for the desperately poor.
DEMEKE TEKLE-WOLD: We have to start educating the grassroots people: Giving them the capacity of knowledge; at the same time, helping them to understand knowledge by itself is no good unless it is applied into the need of sustaining a personal life.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Knowing it would be impossible to develop sustainable farming without a regular water source Project Mercy's first task was to clear a swamp and tap into a natural spring. The organization then built a six-mile road to connect the people with neighboring communities.
Today, Project Mercy serves a community of 75,000 people. It has taught Ethiopians how to farm more effectively, cultivating hybrid varieties of fruits and vegetables that thrive in Ethiopia's climate. The organization has also built a school and is in the process of building a hospital. In addition to teaching farming, it runs training programs in metalwork, carpentry, construction and weaving. All are skills designed to help break the cycle of poverty.
SPOKESPERSON: Thank you very much for every one of you that have come all the way, halfway around the world to see this tiny little project here.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Project Mercy survives on donations and help from volunteers. This group had just arrived from Denver, and includes two volunteers who will teach Ethiopian women to make jewelry. Each piece will sell for about $100 in the United States.
MARTA GABRE-TSADICK, Project Mercy: What we really hope is that this will be duplicated. I wish I could say all through Africa, but definitely all through Ethiopia.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: But even the project's long-range work is being affected by the famine. The erratic rains have not provided enough water for the natural spring which is running low. Training programs in farming and construction have been put on hold so that Marta and Deme can concentrate on the immediate effort to distribute emergency food and medical aid. Volunteer Carrie Harrington, a surgical nurse from Colorado, said nothing in her medical training prepared her for this experience.
CARRIE HARRINGTON: This is just very, very sad. I've never seen children that were this really malnourished. You see the pictures and hear about it, but it's hard to see
BETTY ANN BOWSER: The emergency measures are helping to save lives. Little Hamdiya is back at home and getting healthier. But unless the cycle is broken, she is likely to face the crisis again in just a few years.