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Mediterranean Quarterly 15.2 (2004) 38-46

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Humanitarian Crises in Ethiopia and Eritrea

An estimated 14 million to 16 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance in Ethiopia and Eritrea. Ethiopia is by far the more affected country, with an estimated 14.3 million people at risk. Relief organizations and United Nations officials have described the situation in Ethiopia as a famine. Beginning in late 2002, people began to die of starvation and disease in parts of Ethiopia. Reliable statistics are lacking as to how many people have perished already, but the massive international response to the crisis seems to have contained the situation in some areas. In Eritrea, an estimated 1.4 million people out of a population of 4.5 million are at risk, according to World Food Program (WFP) officials.

The primary cause of the current humanitarian crisis is drought due to poor rains over the past several years. In Eritrea, according to WFP, "rainfall has been poor since October 2001, with the almost total failure of the March through June Azmera rains, and the late onset of the June through September Kremti rains." The most affected regions in Ethiopia are the Somali and Afar regions, the populations of which are largely pastoralist or nomadic. High population growth, inefficient agricultural policies, misplaced budgetary priorities, abject poverty, poor infrastructure, lack of access to fertilizers and pesticides, the HIV/AIDS pandemic, bad governance, and internal conflicts are major contributing factors in recurring humanitarian crises in the Horn of Africa. The absence of commercial farming and dependence on rains instead of irrigation are also contributing factors. Moreover, ethnic and religious conflicts continue to drain meager resources away from development.

The two-year (1998 to 2000) war between Ethiopia and Eritrea diverted [End Page 38] meager resources to military purposes and reversed the limited gains made since the two governments took power in 1991. According to observers, the warring factions spent over a billion dollars between 1998 and 2000.1 An estimated 75,000 people were killed and more than 100,000 displaced. Because of the prevailing poor state of relations between the two countries, donor countries are forced to use primarily the port of Djibouti instead of the ports of Assab and Massawa in Eritrea, which are closer to the affected regions. Eritrean authorities offered the use of their ports in 2002, but Ethiopia argued that was not necessary. Relief officials have stated that the cost of delivering humanitarian assistance through Djibouti is higher than the costs of using ports in Eritrea and that shipments are delayed because of increasing congestion around the port of Djibouti. But donor governments have been reluctant to press Ethiopian authorities on this matter.

The response by the international community to the current crisis was slow initially, but it accelerated as the crisis grew and the threat of massive starvation loomed large, especially in Ethiopia. In June 2003, former Finnish president Martti Ahtisaari was appointed to be the United Nations special envoy for the humanitarian crisis in the Horn of Africa. The government of Ethiopia is credited with sounding the alarm about the humanitarian crisis early. Describing the magnitude of the problem in a BBC interview in November 2002, Prime Minister Meles Zenawi of Ethiopia stated that "if the 1984 famine was a nightmare, this is too ghastly to contemplate." The Ethiopian government has put in place a famine-warning system and maintains an emergency food reserve in order to respond quickly to emergencies. But many say the humanitarian crisis is too widespread and serious for the two governments to handle on their own. Ethiopia's history of drought is depicted in table 1.


In September 2002, the government of Ethiopia and the UN's Emergency Unit for Ethiopia issued a formal appeal for emergency humanitarian assistance for an estimated 6.3 million people. In late December 2002, a WFP [End Page 39] assessment mission concluded that crop production had dropped 25 percent below 2001 levels. Officials from the government of Ethiopia and relief organizations increased their estimates of the number of people affected...


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