Humanitarian agencies are rushing emergency aid to drought-stricken central Ethiopia, where a sudden deterioration in food supplies has led to surge of child mortality. At least 23 children have died at hospitals and emergency feeding centers during the past three weeks, and authorities say countless others have died at home for lack of treatment. In this first of two reports from the hardest-hit area around the town of Shashemene 250 kilometers south of Addis Ababa, VOA's Peter Heinlein reports conditions are expected to worsen over the coming months.

It is bedlam inside a tent on the grounds of the Shashemene hospital. Thirty severely malnourished children, their mothers, and assorted other siblings are scattered over the bare ground, with nothing to do but wait for the next feeding.

Three-year-old Chemeni is a tiny wisp of bony flesh with black eyes wide as saucers. Her mother, Buqre Hussein softly strokes Chemeni's face, a younger daughter strapped to her back. She says her children are among the fortunate ones.

"I am glad my children are recovering,? she said. ?And I expect they will recover. I am glad to see this."

Every four hours, each child in the tent receives a red cup filled with a high-nutrition supplement known as F-75. But Shashemene's regional health officer, Dr. Abebe Megerso says many more malnourished children are having to be turned away.

"The supply is not enough because we did not know the problem is this much overwhelming,?said Megerso. ?And now as the people with problem are appearing, the supply we have at hand is becoming short, and even now, we do not have F-100 and F-75, particularly F-75 is very scarce now."

This makeshift therapeutic feeding center was erected nearly three weeks ago when health officials realized they had an emergency on their hands.
Dr. Megerso says regional health officials tried to prepare for the effects of the drought, but could not imagine the shortages, and the flood of malnourished children, would be this bad.

"It is unusual,? he said ?We have never had problem before because this zone is known by surplus production? We are simply admitting the severely malnourished ones, and we are referring the children with high complications to hospital. But we cannot refer all of them to hospital because we can create high overcrowding in hospital and we are not well prepared."

Ethiopian officials last month issued an international appeal for enough emergency food aid for two-point-two million people. But U.N. agencies say at least three-point-four-million people, and possibly many more, are already severely affected by the drought.

Viviane Van Steirteghem, deputy country director for the U.N. Children's Agency, UNICEF, says tens of thousands of children are in danger of starvation.

"We estimate now, and this is a best estimate, that 126,000 children over the country are in immediate need of this therapeutic care to avoid mortality,? said Viviane Van Steirteghem.

The United States provides the bulk of the food aid to Ethiopia. The U.S. Congress approved an additional $100 million of aid this month, boosting the total for the year to more than $300 million.

But the U.N. World Food Program estimates 395,000 metric tons of food will be needed to get through the immediate crisis. That will cost $147 million more than is currently available.

The WFP's Lisette Trebbi says the way conditions are deteriorating, the month of June is going to be especially difficult.

"We have new donations coming in, but it is a question of timing,? said Lisette Trebbi. ?And we therefore foresee we will have some shortfalls... during the month of June, which will be a critical month, for the population, because they will still not have recovered, we anticipate the crisis to get worse, so we are taking every measure that we can, we are short and will probably have to prioritize the worst and most affected area."

There has been some rain in central Ethiopia in recent weeks; not enough to produce the desperately needed bumper harvest in September, but enough to spark fears of an outbreak of water-borne diseases among a weak and vulnerable population.

Officials here are predicting many difficult months ahead.