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Silently, starvation stalks millions in Africa

The poor in Ethiopia are subsisting on cracked wheat as drought starves crops.
The poor in Ethiopia are subsisting on cracked wheat as drought starves crops.

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CNN's Catherine Bond reports Ethiopians are suffering from a drought even more severe than one that shocked the world in 1984.
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• Total:
38.2 million people face starvation in 2003.

• Southern Africa:
16.4 million
• Greater Horn: 17.9 million
• Great Lakes: 2.7 million
• Western Sahel: 448,000
• West Africa: 791,000

Source: U.N. World Food Program

DERA, Ethiopia (CNN) -- Drought, AIDS and preventable disease have put millions of Africans at risk of starvation. People in southern Africa and the Horn of Africa stand to suffer most, officials say.

The U.N. World Food Program (WFP) said in December that more than 38 million people across Africa are at risk of starvation. (Distribution of threat in Africa)

Hardest hit are the Horn of Africa, where about 17.9 million people face severe food shortages, and southern Africa, where 16.41 million are at risk, the agency said.

In Ethiopia, the U.N. agency expects to provide food aid to 11.3 million people in 2003, but that number could rise to 14.3 million people by year's end.

The food relief that agencies provide is holding mass starvation at bay for now, but the meals are not substantial.

"If we're lucky, we'll eat flat bread once a week," said an Ethiopian man receiving food in an assistance line. "But mainly we survive on cracked wheat."

The problem is compounded by AIDS and treatable diseases -- such as diarrhea, pneumonia and tuberculosis -- that destroy the lives of people needed to help communities recover from drought and natural disasters, according to U.N. officials.

"While the world's attention is currently gripped by events in other regions, Africa is in crisis with thousands of people dying silently each day, " read a U.N. statement correlating the effect AIDS has on Africa food security.

The Ethiopian government is preparing a worldwide appeal for food assistance, said Olga Keita of the World Food Program.

"We are also doing the same," she said. "You could see the condition of these children. If they are not receiving food in a few weeks, we [will] not find anybody in this village [in southern Ethiopia]."

Water is too scarce to use for bathing, and drought has created dust bowls.
Water is too scarce to use for bathing, and drought has created dust bowls.

People are grateful for the lifeline of food aid, but they prefer to have healthy land instead of international charity, aid workers say, adding that benefactors missed an opportunity to prevent future crises when they doled out help 18 years ago.

The United States and other Western governments spent millions of dollars to send grain surpluses to Ethiopia then. Aid workers contend that money would have been better spent on long-term solutions such as irrigation.

In Ethiopia, there is little water for drinking or bathing. Ponds have become bowls of baked earth, and trees are tinder dry. Drought grips much of the nation. In many areas, people have to walk up to 6 miles (about 10 kilometers) to find fresh water.

Food is available for people who have money -- markets stock tomatoes, onions, beans and potatoes. But drought and poverty are the twin evils in Ethiopia, and they feed on another.

Aid workers disperse food to people.
Aid workers disperse food to people.

Yet without money, Ethiopians are doing anything to survive. A woman named Nafisa takes firewood to the market to sell so that she will have money to buy drinking water for her children.

Livestock numbers are dropping because of the fodder and water shortage. The remaining animals are skeletal and fetch a lower price than usual.

The selling price of cattle is "nowhere near enough. In good times, they fetch 10 times that," an Ethiopian farmer said. "I'm just selling them instead of watching them die."

An area known as Dera in Ethiopia used to be the country's breadbasket. Threshers report they don't have enough to feed themselves and certainly not enough to sell.

CNN Correspondent Catherine Bond contributed to this report.

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