Ethiopian officials are re-evaluating the need for emergency food aid in light of evidence that drought conditions and food shortages in parts of the country may be worse than estimated. VOA's Peter Heinlein recently visited areas of southern and eastern Ethiopia where the drought threatens to cause widespread famine.

Much of southern Ethiopia has turned a putrid yellowish brown. As far as the eye can see, the grass is dead, long ago eaten down to the nubs by famished animals. The slightest wind raises clouds of dust.

The last two rains have failed, and while there have been some showers lately, the forecast for the next few months is grim.

Borana zone, near Ethiopia's border with Kenya, is home to millions of herders who move from place to place looking for fresh pasture for their livestock. But the cattle are skin and bones. They are dying in droves.

Humanitarian agencies are spending millions of dollars to ship truckloads of hay to save the herds, but they reach about one percent of the starving animals.

Herdsman Jarso Liban has lost 15 of his 25 cattle. He has come to an animal feeding center operated by CARE International in hopes of saving the others so he can rebuild his herd when the rains come. He says the way things are now, he cannot earn enough to feed his family.

"When our animals were in good condition, the price of animal was attractive, but with deteriorating body condition of the animals, price now went down," said Liban. "As humans we also need something to eat, if we try to buy grain in the market, the grain price has skyrocketed ,and the terms of trade is totally against us."

In some places, conditions are so bad that tribal wars are breaking out over scarce resources. CARE worker Halake Bante says six people died in a recent clash between the Hamer and Borana tribes.

"The Hamer crossed the regional boundaries and attacked and looted animals and killed herders. So the competition for pasture and water is increasing," said Bante.

The Ethiopian government recently issued an appeal for $67 million worth of aid to feed an estimated 2.2 million people facing starvation during the next three months. But already these estimates appear woefully short.

The U.S. Agency for International Development 's Ethiopia mission director, Glenn Anders, says government figures may understate the scope of the emergency by 50 percent.

"We think, the donors generally think the 2.2 million [people] underestimates the emergency load, we think it is closer to above three million and the government is re-looking at this figure again," said Anders.

Anders says those needing emergency assistance are in addition to the eight to 10 million Ethiopians considered chronically at risk. He says many aid agencies are worried because the country's strategic food reserve is at its lowest level in some time.

John Rynne, the Ethiopia operations director of the Irish charity GOAL, expects the emergency to drag on for many more months.

"What worries me is that there is no significant harvest due until September of this year, and the poor rains have already compromised that harvest, so we do not expect a bumper harvest to arrive in September that will prevent the famine continuing. There are many months until September, and during this time people have little or no food, so I expect a sharp deterioration," said Rynne.

The United States provides the bulk of the food aid to Ethiopia. Roughly 40 percent of the $750 million in U.S. aid to the Horn of Africa country this year will go to providing food aid, including another $100 million just approved this week.

U.S. Ambassador to Ethiopia Donald Yamamoto says he is urging Ethiopian officials to sharply increase their appeal for emergency assistance.

"We have had a very frank, heart-to-heart discussion with the ministers, government. They understand full well the problems, and the seriousness of the drought. They are taking it very seriously," said Yamamoto. "And we, working with this government providing as much information as we have, if you order early and order a lot, then you can offset a lot of problems."

Ambassador Yamamoto says efforts to provide enough food aid are being hampered by a combination of the dollar's declining purchasing power and sharply higher prices.

"Price of wheat has gone up 137 percent, sorghum, have gone up 56 percent and higher. Plus the fuel cost is really raised, and this area is still a volatile area, so therefore insurance rates are also very high," said Yamamoto.

Repeated attempts by VOA to contact representatives of Ethiopia's disaster preparedness agency and agriculture ministry for comment on the drought were unsuccessful. But unofficial sources say a revised assessment of needs is being prepared.

A bulletin issued by the U.N. Office of Humanitarian Affairs at the end of April says recent rains on most places have been insufficient to reverse the drought. The bulletin speaks of declining livestock values, along with a worrisome decline in food security and decreasing water supplies in the northeastern Afar region.

The U.N. agency notes that a program to deliver water by tanker truck to people in Afar is about to end because of a lack of funds. 

When asked whether donors have the resources available to stave off a food emergency, USAID's Glenn Anders said, I think the international community can do it, assuming it is no worse than it has been so far.

But the next rainy season is due to start in June, and if it fails all assumptions will have to be revised.