DIRE DAWA, Ethiopia | When drought and food shortages hit, it is the very young who suffer first, and most.
Weighing only 10 pounds, Ayaan is among nearly 100,000 Ethiopian children whose lives are at risk.
Just four days before her first birthday, she is lighter than an average 3-month-old baby.
A clinic at Kersi, about 15 miles outside Ethiopia’s second city Dire Dawa, has seen an increasing number of such cases in recent weeks, as have locations across the south and west of the country.
Much of the land is used to grow the cash-crop narcotic known as khat.
In more than a dozen villages outside the city, this reporter witnessed groups of mainly young men, but also some women, getting high in the shade on the chewed leaves.
Khat is an appetite suppressant, and local culture means that children often eat only after adults.
As the doctor at the Kersi clinic told The Washington Times, “If parents are on khat, the whole family goes hungry.”
Khat is not just for local consumption. It is a lucrative revenue source for an economy best known for its high-grade coffee, but with few other viable exports.
At Dire Dawa’s airport earlier this month, a plane loaded with khat departed on a Russian Antonov, with the flight due to stop in Djibouti, before export to the Gulf States and Britain.
Ethiopia’s food crisis, however, goes beyond the use of khat.
“The food shortage in Ethiopia is the result of drought in 294 districts of six regions,” the U.N. World Health Organization said in a Web posting this month that calls for “immediate interventions.”
The drought is exacerbated by rising food and energy prices.
Aid agencies such as the World Food Program and U.S. Agency for International Development partner groups such as the private charity Goal are struggling with rising costs.
Not only are food prices and staples more expensive - in some cases double the price from June 2007 - energy prices have skyrocketed, eating into budgets.
In turn, rising oil prices have prompted the Ethiopian government to embark on a biofuels project, despite ongoing global debate that diverting cropland for alternative energy has contributed to global food price rises by narrowing supply.
“There is no shortage of agriculture land in Ethiopia for food production,” Melis Teka, coordinator of biofuel development in the Ministry of Mines and Energy, told Reuters.
“We have up to 23 million hectares which could be developed both for crops and biofuel. Biofuel plants are being developed on arid and barren land not suitable for food production.
“As the country accelerates its economic development, the demand for petroleum is anticipated to increase,” he said.
Recent droughts, however, have added about 4 million people to the number of those needing emergency food assistance, government officials say.
With children most at risk, the first in a series of UNICEF airlifts of a ready-to-use therapeutic baby food called Plumpynut arrived on June 30.
In 1984, Ethiopia endured a famine of biblical proportions, in which nearly 1 million people died.
Faced with periodic cycles of rainy and dry seasons, the nation suffers from famine every few years. The current crisis reflects a lack of rainfall in the past two wet seasons.
“Until now we have got $160 million in pledges,” Deputy Prime Minister Addisu Legese told the U.N.-affiliated IRIN news service. “[But] we need $430 million,” said the official, who recently visited some of the most affected areas.