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Aid Agencies Sound Alarm as Ethiopia's Food Crisis Worsens

Humanitarian aid agencies are pleading for more help, in the face of a rapidly developing food emergency in drought-stricken central Ethiopia. In the past three weeks, scores of children have died of starvation and the United Nations says 126,000 others are in immediate danger. As VOA's Peter Heinlein learned on a visit to Rophi (330 kilometers south of Addis Ababa) life-saving nutritional supplements are in short supply.

The high-potency formula known as F-75 is prepared in giant vats at the Catholic Church in Rophi. Every four hours, the nuns of Mother Teresa's Missionaries of Charity prepare enough F-75 to feed hundreds of severely malnourished children. And the numbers are growing by the hour.

Rophi is a tiny village in central Ethiopia's Rift Valley, 35 kilometers from the nearest paved road. These days, it is a magnet for desperate families for kilometers around. The church grounds have been transformed into an emergency therapeutic feeding center.

The regional health officer, Dr. Abebe Megerso, says the number of severe malnutrition cases mushroomed at the end of April.

"Three weeks back, when the problem erupted, we started to find large number of cases. We started with this Catholic Church mission. And, we started treating children here," he explained. "Afterward, village people started to hear children with malnutrition are getting treatment, they start to come more, more and more and now you can see we have more than five tents all full of children with severe acute malnutrition."

Humanitarian groups such as Doctors Without Borders and the Missionaries of Charity, along with United Nations agencies UNICEF and the World Food Program are combining forces to try to feed the flood of malnourished children, but they can only take in the worst of the worst.

Albert Vinas is leader of the Doctors Without Borders emergency team at the Rophi church. He warns that many more children may die, unless additional help arrives soon. Vinas appeals to Ethiopia's government to speed up the process of allowing foreign medical professionals and supplies into the country and to allow them more freedom to travel into the countryside to determine the full extent of the crisis.

"If we need to follow long procedures, we'll be late. It's important for expats (expatriates), health workers and international NGOs (non-governmental organizations) to do emergency procedures to start with (obtain) work permits soon," Vinas said.

The World Food Program (WFP) estimates that, to cover food shortages, Ethiopia will need $147 million more aid than what has been pledged.

WFP spokesperson Lisetta Trebbi says the government's initial appeal for international assistance underestimated the need by more than one million people.

"The government is currently responding to 2.7 million people, and this is a higher number than the number they used for the 2008 appeal," she noted. "WFP think that beyond June we will look at at least three-point-four million people, possibly more."

At the church in Rophi, Father Yohannnes Mikhail worries that the full scope of the emergency may still be unknown. He says survey teams visiting the most isolated regions are finding entire families wasting away.

"They are dying," he said. "Exactly we cannot describe, that means every place you can find. Nobody says. Even some mothers never cry for their children. It's not fair."

Officials say there is little prospect for replenishing food supplies until the next harvest in July. The World Food Program's Lisetta Trebbi says, with the current mix of low food stocks, high prices and millions of undernourished children, conditions in drought-affected areas of Ethiopia are almost certain to get worse before they get better.