Ethiopia's schools have opened for the new academic year, but severe food insecurity in some regions has kept thousands of children out of class.
"This time last year we had already enrolled 2,300 students," said Solomon Desta, director of Bashiro primary school in Bona district of Sidama zone in the Southern region. "Now we have registered 1,800."
Solomon had prepared for 2,500 children because he was forced to send some children to other schools last year as Bashiro could not accommodate them all.
The school extended its registration deadline by 15 days from 1 September but still the numbers did not improve. "The turnout is the lowest of the last three years," Solomon told IRIN.
The parents of the children who had stayed away explained they could not send them to school because there was little or nothing to eat at home.
Shemna Hurufa village, also in Sidama zone, the only primary school for grades one to four, had planned for at least 800 students this season, but only 710 had registered by 26 September.
"Compared to the vastness of our kebele [ward], we expected many children [to register for school]," the director, Lema Harriso, said. "There are about 400 children of school age in our kebele, but only 260 of them are registered."
The school, Lema said, registered 860 children in September last year, but 200 had dropped out by the end of the school year in June.
These are just two of the many schools whose enrolments have been affected by food and water shortages in Ethiopia.
According to the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS Net), extreme levels of food insecurity have persisted in southern and south-eastern Ethiopia. This is due to successive seasons of below-average rains, flooding in riverine areas, livestock disease, an army worm infestation, conflict, inadequate humanitarian assistance, and extremely high and rising food prices.
Oromiya, Southern, Tigray, Amhara, and Somali regions are the most food-insecure, with 297 woredas considered hot spots, where critical and serious levels of acute malnutrition have been reported.
All of Somali region, but mainly Fik, Warder, Gode, Dagabhur, Korahe, Liben and Afder zones, require urgent assistance given the rapid declines in food security conditions over the past 18 months, FEWS Net stated in a 29 September update.
The situation in these areas has proved dire for parents. "For poor families, the basic costs of school materials are now completely prohibitive," the NGO Save the Children said on 26 September.
"All money must go on finding food; in many cases children are not eating enough to be able to make the journey to school, and are unable to concentrate once they get there," it added.
Findings by the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) in June showed a high drop-out rate this year in Oromiya, Tigray, Somali and Southern regions.
"Education has been disrupted in the drought-affected areas, resulting in decreased school attendance, increased drop-out rates, and teachers migrating from their assigned school as currently reported in parts of Oromiya, Southern and Somali regions," the agency said.
A large number of children in Shemna Hurufa are also malnourished, with many receiving therapeutic assistance.
Amanuel Eleso, 25, took his brother Henok, 8, to the centre when he realised he was ill. "Our mother died six years ago. There is no one who can take care of Henok."
The eldest son with a weak, old father, Amanuel had taken Henok to live with his three children. Eventually he took in his 10- and 13-year-old brothers as well.
But the struggle to feed his brothers and his own children was too much. "Due to erratic rainfall, we do not produce enough maize," Amanuel said. "The next harvest will only cover three to four months."
Sidama zone depends on both short and main rainy seasons. The short season, belg, lasts from March to April and the main one from June to mid-September.
Aid workers say the two seasons have performed poorly this year. In Hwassa Zuria woreda, where Amanuel lives, a nutritional survey in May and June by the NGO Goal and the regional Emergency Nutrition Co-ordination Unit found high severe acute malnutrition rates of 5.5 percent with 1.6 percent oedema, and global acute malnutrition rates of 29.9 percent.
Across the country, the government estimates that 6.4 million Ethiopians will need relief food in the coming months, including 1.9 million in Somali region.
This number is in addition to the 5.7 million Productive Safety Net Programme beneficiaries in drought-affected areas, who receive food and cash, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), said.
High food prices
According to FEWS Net, prices have continued to rise, reducing food access for the urban poor, poor rural farmers, and pastoral and agro-pastoral populations.
"Cereal prices are extremely high compared to the same time last year, as well as the five-year average," FEWS Net said. "In Addis Ababa, the nominal retail price of white maize was 176 percent and 224 percent higher, respectively."
Amanuel said he could no longer afford to feed the children well. "When I took Henok for a medical check-up, they told me I should feed him properly," he said. "Where can I get the food they talk about?"