Years of acute drought in several regions of the country, especially the south, have withered crops and left farming households destitute and unable to feed themselves.
Pre-famine conditions are now reported in parts of the East African country, and large numbers of children are suffering from malnutrition.
Animals are dying due to lack of water and feed after repeated failed harvests.
"Traditionally these people cope with drought either by growing crops which can be harvested sooner or by migrating," FAO's Yon Fernandez de Larrinoa explained.
"But the situation is now so grave, all means of dealing with drought have been exhausted. The already malnourished people are simply eating even less or relying on food aid," he said.
An estimated 12.6 million Ethiopians are now in need of food aid. FAO's emergency agricultural projects, worth some $4.3 million, aim to help farmers cope with the crisis now and manage better in the future.
These projects include supplying seeds, feed, equipment, animal health services, farming expertise and training in water management to boost the agriculture sector, which accounts for 45 percent of the Ethiopian economy, and improve access to food.
Droughts, then floods
Ethiopia is constantly battered by extremes of weather, by cycles of drought and floods. For the rural populations who depend on agriculture for their survival, farming is highly precarious.
The country's recent border conflict with neighbouring Eritrea, a growing population, fractured road infrastructure and poor land management practices exacerbate difficult climatic conditions, leaving the country at constant risk of slipping into crisis each time the rains fail.
Over 11 million hectares of land are farmed in Ethiopia but less than 200 000 hectares are irrigated.
In 2002, the failure of the two rainy seasons - the Belg and the Mehr seasons which arrive around
February and June respectively - withered over 70 percent of the maize and sorghum crops, decimating grain production.
In 2002 alone, Ethiopia produced 25 percent less cereals and pulses than the previous year.
Farming families depend upon livestock to till the soil and collect the harvest, while pastoralists derive most of their livelihoods from animal production.
Large numbers of animals have died due to lack of water and pastureland and there have been outbreaks of livestock diseases as animals migrate in search of water and fodder.
Some areas in the southern lowlands are experiencing what is known as a "green famine" where recent rains have created a lush landscape which masks severe hunger.
People who have already been weakened by years of drought and crop failure are now going hungry as they wait for newly-planted crops to grow.
In April and May this year the river of Wabe Shebele in the southeastern region of Somalia burst its banks and flooding forced an estimated 100 000 people to flee, abandoning land and property.
These internally displaced people are now especially at risk of not being able to access food.
FAO projects, which reach 2.3 million vulnerable Ethiopians, a total of 450 000 households, include:
- local seeds for farmers to plant ahead of the next harvest;
- basic farming tools including fertilizers and hoes;
- water management training so farmers can cope with droughts;
- expert support to improve seeds to ensure seed reserves;
- fodder banks, forage distribution and animal health assistance.
The project will benefit 134 000 families in the northern region of Tigray, the central region of Oromiya and the Southern Nations Nationalities and Peoples region (SNNP).
Financial support has also been provided by the governments of Canada and the United States of America and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).
contacts: Stephanie Holmes, Information
(+39) 06 570 56350