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Fifteen million people facing food shortages in Ethiopia

(abc news): TIM PALMER: It’s being called a “code red emergency” by aid groups, yet the international response to the drought in Ethiopia has been criticised as ponderous

Fifteen million people in the east African country are believed likely to face food shortages this year.

The UN says the strongest El Niño climate system in decades has decimated livestock herds and caused crops to fail.

Imogen Brennan reports.

(Children crying)

IMOGEN BRENNAN: In a medical centre in the Ethiopian village of Mender, babies are being weighed, and measuring tapes are wrapped around their arms.

Doctors are checking for signs of malnutrition.

A woman named Selamwit has brought her baby in for treatment.

SELAMAWIT (translation): I brought my daughter here because she is sick with diarrhoea and a fever, and she has just been screened for malnourishment.

IMOGEN BRENNAN: Another local woman, Meron, has brought her one-year-old son for a check-up.

He’s one of four children in her family. They’ve lost most of their livestock and crops to the drought.

MERON (translation): My baby boy Thomas is sick. Thomas started feeling sick two weeks ago and he came here with lots of different problems.

He was vomiting, had a fever and diarrhoea, and he had also lost his appetite and refused breastfeeding.

IMOGEN BRENNAN: This village in north-eastern Ethiopia is in one of the regions worst-affected by drought. Villages in the north are struggling too.

The United Nations is blaming the current El Niño weather event. It’s the worst in decades – causing severe drought in some regions and flooding in others.

Ethiopia produces about 90 per cent of its own food.

The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation says already, crop production in the country has dropped by 50 to 90 per cent in some regions and failed completely in others.

John Graham is the country director in Ethiopia for the charity Save the Children. He spoke to PM from the capital Addis Ababa.

JOHN GRAHAM: I’ve been working here for 19 years and I’ve been working on droughts in Ethiopia since 1984, and it terms of just the rainfall and the types of failed rainfalls that we’ve had, this is the worst I’ve ever seen.

IMOGEN BRENNAN: The UN is estimating that 15 per cent of Ethiopians will face food shortages this year. That’s 15 million people.

Save the Children has ranked the drought crisis as a category one emergency – it’s the same level as the Syrian war.

They’re predicting that 350,000 babies will be born into drought-affected communities in the next six months. That’s when Ethiopia’s so-called ‘hunger season’ will be at its peak.

John Graham says it’s urgent to get food to those in need now, because preventing malnourishment is cheaper than treating it.

JOHN GRAHAM: Already we’re expecting 400,000 children to fall into malnutrition in 2016, that’s the official government prediction.

Once you have a child fall into severe malnutrition, as far as I’m concerned you’ve already failed.

You know, the thing that I’m really afraid of is that everybody is waiting to actually see these suffering children on the TV screens before they respond.

That’s something that happened in 1984 in previous droughts, but I just think it’d be a great tragedy if here and now in 2016, we still have to wait for children to suffer and to be shown suffering on television screens before we get the kind of support that we need to prevent that from happening in the first place.

TIM PALMER: John Graham from Save the Children. Imogen Brennan was reporting.

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