The U.N. Children's Fund said there is still time for the international community to avert a humanitarian catastrophe in Ethiopia. The Children's Agency said millions of people in drought-stricken Ethiopia are faced with famine and are in need of immediate assistance.

Ethiopia has had little rain for the past four years, resulting in severe and widespread food shortages. UNICEF Spokesman Marc Vergara said seven million Ethiopians are going hungry.

This number is likely to increase to more than 11 million this year if international donors do not provide assistance. Mr. Vergara said an estimated 54,000 children are severely malnourished, an indication that the situation in the country is deteriorating. "We cannot wait anymore. I think the idea in the media in general has been to see, to wait and see, and then we do something. The figures that we have already show that although the situation is expected to deteriorate, the situation is bad enough now to do something. If we do something now, there is still time to save the vast majority of people," Mr. Vergara said.

Ethiopia has a population of 60 million. It is one of the poorest countries in the world. Even in a good year, Mr. Vergara said an estimated 1,300 Ethiopian children under the age of five die of preventable diseases. He said this number is likely to rise as more children go hungry.

In a critical situation such as this, the UNICEF spokesman said, it is important to provide malnourished children with specially blended foods which are high in nutritional value. But he said the agency's appeal for $24 million has had a poor response.

"People do not have the resources to buy this oil, to buy this vegetable oil to mix with the cereal. Therefore the children, of course, are the most vulnerable of all will not get this added food. That is the worry we have. But so far we have only been promised about 10 percent of what we need for the year 2003 when it comes to blended food," Mr. Vergara said.

UNICEF said once it gets the money it needs, it will be able to carry out a number of urgent projects. These include health and nutrition, water and sanitation, education and mine awareness programs.