The United Nations is sounding another alarm about severe food shortages in Ethiopia, where tens of thousands of children are facing starvation.  VOA's Peter Heinlein in Addis Ababa reports the U.N. children's agency UNICEF is appealing for nearly $50 million in emergency aid for the hardest-hit areas, where food stocks are depleted and the next harvest is months away.

A senior U.N. children's agency official visiting drought-ravaged areas of southern Ethiopia during the past week found families with no food, not enough money to buy any, and no hope of replenishing supplies until at least late September.

UNICEF Deputy Director Hilde Johnson says everywhere she went, government officials and aid workers gave the same assessment.

"A clear message was conveyed to us from all of them: There is no food," said Hilde Johnson. "The assistance needs to be taken to scale, and it has to happen urgently.  There was absolutely no inconsistency.  That was the message from everyone."

The UNICEF official says during her four-day visit, she had positive meetings with Prime Minister Meles Zenawi and other senior leaders, some of whom have accused aid agencies of exaggerating the food shortages for fund-raising purposes.

UNICEF's Johnson says in her talks, all government officials agreed the food shortages are serious and getting worse.  She told reporters the ministers expressed hope the crisis would ease later this year if conditions improve.  But she says there are many 'ifs'.

"The government do think they will be able to curb in the sense the situation later, meaning August, September, If the rains come in accordance with normal, If there is an adequate vegetable harvesting, If other complementary measures are kicking in, plus If the supplies they are buying externally to come into the market, plus aid bilaterally they are negotiating comes in," said Johnson. "So there is a clear "if", and that is no secret."

U.N. humanitarian agencies say it is impossible to know how widespread the food shortages are in a country where record-keeping is poor.  

"It is very very difficult for us to say how many children are dying," she said. "From our visit in the hot spot areas of Kambala, we were told by health extension officers that children were dying in the villages now, and that for quite many it was too late.  There is no doubt there is a risk of children dying in numbers in the hot spots."

Ethiopian officials have repeatedly emphasized that this drought is not a famine, such as the one in the mid 1980s that killed an estimated one million people.

Ethiopia's disaster preparedness agency this month more than doubled its estimate of the number of people needing food assistance from 2.2 million to 4.6 million.

Disaster preparedness agency chief Simon Mechale is predicting worse conditions in July.  He recently appealed to donor nations for $325 million worth of emergency food aid to make up an expected shortfall of 390,000 metric tons until the next harvest comes in.