The international community is scrambling to meet Ethiopia's latest request for emergency food aid. The Ethiopian government this month more than doubled its estimate of the number of people needing assistance to 4.6 million, and said 75,000 children are on the edge of starvation. VOA's Peter Heinlein visited several emergency feeding centers in southern Ethiopia, and reports the caseloads are growing faster than the ability to cope.
The head of Ethiopia's disaster preparedness agency, Simon Mechale says food shortages are far worse than the government had estimated just two months ago. He is appealing to wealthy countries and aid agencies to act quickly to make up an estimated shortfall of 390,000 metric tons over the next few months.
"We would like officially to request our partners, donors to contribute, and we feel the donors as they have been doing in the past they will generously contribute for the requirements," he says.
But for many, the appeal comes too late. Government officials say they have no way of knowing how many children have died. But workers at emergency feeding centers set up in the worst-hit regions say more severely malnourished children are being brought in every day, many too sick to be saved.
At a recently-opened center run by the group Doctors Without Borders in the town of Shashemene, 300 kilometers south of Addis Ababa, nurse Mika Steenssens says there is only room for the worst cases; others have to be turned away.
"We have 200 children, only six nurses and one doctor, but she is almost always in the ICU [Intensive Care Unit] room because there we have the cases that need to be followed up very closely," says Steenssens. "We have severe complications, anemia, hypothermia, dehydration, and it is life saving and she has to be there all the time to save lives."
In a normal year the rich farmland around Shashemene produces a bountiful harvest, but two consecutive rains have failed.
Disaster preparedness agency chief Simon says July is going to be a very difficult month, because there is not enough food on the way to meet the critical need.
The head of the World Food Program office in Ethiopia, Mohammed Diab, goes further. He predicts severe shortages for several months, even if the September harvest is good. He is pleading with donors to act now, because it takes months from the time food is ordered until it arrives.
"It is urgent that these resources come, the timing of the food is very critical, and the coming three months ... is going to be critical and we need such resources as soon as possible," he says.
Diab says this month he was able to divert a shipment of 3,000 tons of life saving corn-soya blend that had been headed elsewhere. But that was less than one percent of what is needed.
This makeshift feeding center on the grounds of a church in the town of Rophi has been operating since April, when a sudden surge in malnutrition deaths alerted authorities to a developing crisis. Doctors Without Borders and nuns from Mother Teresa's Sisters of Charity work feverishly to save the children who arrive each morning
Sister Marie Thomas has been working from morning till night for more than a month trying to alleviate a human tragedy.
"It is difficult to see children dying," she says. "At the same time we really admire the brave mothers who are here who accept it as a life event."
Sister Marie Thomas says as long as supplies of life-saving nutrition supplements hold out, most of the children can be saved. But supplies are running low.
The Horn of Africa has been through floods and food shortages before, and government officials reject comparisons to the politically-induced famine of 1984-85, when an estimated one million Ethiopians died. But there is growing concern among aid agencies that unless more food arrives soon, and lots of it, this has all the makings of a humanitarian catastrophe.