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After 15 years, Ethiopia confronting famine again
ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia (CNN) -- International aid workers say the drought that has brought famine to parts of Ethiopia is not as severe as the one that devastated the country in 1984-'85, but, they say, the situation has changed since then both for the better and the worse.
Lessons learned from the disaster 15 years ago led to the establishment of an early warning system that began signaling the seriousness of the food shortage last November.
"Really the situation would be like '84-'85 because if the early warning system were not in place, even the severity of the problem may not come out clearly, and the intervention will be started after the situation has reached a really serious situation," said Teshome Erkineh, of the Ethiopian Early Warning Department.
Shortage at food banks
But the Ethiopian government says donor nations did not listen to the warnings.
Another system put in place since 1985 is a system of food banks that international donors borrow from to distribute to people in need.
But last year major food aid donors such as the United States and the United Nations borrowed heavily without paying back, a debt which the government says created a food shortage that donors say has only just been reversed.
"The issue of repayment is yes, we have been slow, but the issue is for us to focus on and be proactive this year," said Judith Lewis of the World Food Program.
"We know the scheduled repayments that are going to come in to build the reserves back up ... we're going to have to borrow against those immediately because we must keep the food flowing to the beneficiaries," she said.
Aid distributors say the need for food aid in Ethiopia this year is genuine and widespread, but it wasn't until images of emaciated children reached television screens in the west that they were promised more.
Population almost doubled in 15 years
"What is different is we're talking about a population of almost double the size in 1984-'85, and the population that we believe is much poorer than it was in '84-'85," said Ben Foot of Save the Children Fund. "So it doesn't take the massive drought of '84-'85 to bring them to famine."
The famine of the 1980s claimed an estimated 800,000 lives.
Since then the increase in population and the custom of the old dividing their land between their children has led to farms getting smaller and plunged more of the population into poverty.
When it comes to improving the economy, critics say both the Ethiopian government and the international community are at fault.
"I think the record of serious investment in development aid is very poor, and if you balance that to the amount of money spent on relief food, it seems very strange," said Foot.
"I think there is a substantial need for investment," he said.
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