Almost 20 years ago, the world rallied in response to media images of starving people in Ethiopia. Today, a famine that some fear could be worse than the one that killed nearly a million people in 1984 and 1985 is by comparison going largely unnoticed, leaving aid organizations scrambling for support.

Drought and poverty have combined to create a hunger crisis in Ethiopia. An estimated 11 million people, or 20 percent of the population, are coping with a prolonged food shortage and are in danger of starvation, aid organizations say.

As a result of erratic rainfall, a staggering proportion of Ethiopia’s crop harvest and livestock has been destroyed, reported.

“The situation is very bad and it’s going to get much worse,” said Dennis Walto, Save the Children’s Ethiopia program director. “The vast majority of the population of Ethiopia is living in rural areas. When their wells dry up or crops fail, they are left with little alternative but to pick up and move their families to the cities where they may find some reprieve,”

The United Nations says 2 million tons of food aid will be needed in Ethiopia in 2003.

Save the Children puts Ethiopia’s hunger problem in perspective by comparing it to America’s heartland: imagine that everyone living in Missouri, Kansas, Iowa and Nebraska had lost their livestock and were trying to live on a couple of pieces of bread a day for a period of months.

And if the problem goes unabated, it will only get worse. In 2003, experts say the numbers of starving Ethiopians could rise to 14 million.

Georgia Shaver, the U.N. World Food Programme’s director in Ethiopia, told BBC News that while up to 14 million people needed food aid across six countries in southern Africa, “in Ethiopia we could have the same number in just one country.”

Calls for help, meanwhile, have fallen largely on deaf ears, says ACT International, which had to reduce its wheat rations to Ethiopian families from 15 kilograms to 12.5 kilograms.

“The 12.5 kilograms is so minimal. An average family of eight will only have one meal per day,” said Bodja Gelalcha, program coordinator of the Lutheran World Federation/World Service in Ethiopia. “The food available so far will only last until June this year and if food is not forthcoming then, we will see something reminiscent of the 1984 drought.”

Aid groups say there appears to have been a loss of institutional memory about how severe the 1984-85 famine really was. And other high-profile crises elsewhere have kept Ethiopia off of television screens.

Poverty and hunger are nothing new to Ethiopia, which has the second-largest population in sub-Saharan Africa. But when U.S. Ambassador Tony Hall visited there earlier this year he saw a country “struggling to contain a major humanitarian disaster.”

In a report of his visit, Hall wrote: “The scenes at feeding sites were ones of despair and tragedy. Mothers had nothing to offer their hungry children. Children who should have been playing had no energy to even move. Senior citizens looked decades older than they actually were.”

“Given the depth and wide geographic spread of the hunger, greater leadership and involvement of the United Nations at the country level is required,” Hall wrote. “And donors need to be seized with a heightened sense of urgency.”

Many organizations send aid to Ethiopia. They include:
Oxfam America: Ethiopia Relief Fund

Save the Children: Crisis in Ethiopia

United Nations World Food Programme

U.S. Fund for UNICEF: Ethiopia Famine

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Jodi Mathews is news writer for

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