UNICEF says up about six million children under five years of age need urgent nutritional and health care. The UN agency says the culprits are a combination of factors, including drought and the climbing price of foods, especially grain imports.

UNICEF?s representative in Ethiopia, Bjorn Ljungqvist, says short rains did not materialize, particularly affecting the areas bordering Somalia and Kenya, and a northward belt that depends on precipitation. Among the crops that are being affected are maize, sorghum and millet, which is often used to feed livestock. The lack of grain for livestock means less meat for sale and also less milk for children. Some families cope by eating parts of a tree, called the false banana (also known as encete, or Kobe, in Amharic). It is high in cellulose, which cannot be digested, and low in protein and vitamins.

The results, says Ljungqvist, include a growing number of cases of kwashiorkor, a form of malnutrition that causes a swelling of the stomach, legs and feet. What?s unusual, he says, is that the illness is now appearing in teenagers and adults.

Ljungqvist says because of the growing threat of malnutrition from food shortages, UNICEF is asking for $50 million dollars, nearly double the original amount targeted for nutritional supplements for Ethiopia. So far, he says, about $10 million dollars has been contributed. The money will help with the supply of nutritional supplements for children, including one called plumpy?nut which is made from groundnuts, oil and water. The UNICEF spokesman says the only about 50 tons per month of the supplement is produced locally, but nearly five times that amount is needed.

Ljungqvist says the current drought is similar to one in the Horn five years ago ? with an important exception: he says Ethiopia has established a food-for-work program that acts as a safety net for up to eight million people affected by the food shortages. Development experts say ample rains over the next several weeks could turn the situation around ? and lead to sufficient harvests in October.