ROME (Reuters) - Ethiopia is probably facing its worst drought since the great famine of 1984 and will need a huge mobilisation of food aid to prevent famine again this year, Tony Hall, U.S. ambassador to the U.N. food agencies, said.
Hall, a former Democrat congressman of Dayton, Ohio, has recently returned to his Rome base following a visit to Ethiopia with assistant administrator for the U.S. Agency for International Development Roger Winter between February 15-21.
"My visit there with Roger Winter confirmed that this year Ethiopia will experience probably its worst drought since 1984/85," Hall said in an open letter sent to Reuters and other organisations late on Wednesday.
"I am strongly convinced, after visiting the Ethiopian countryside and seeing literally thousands of acutely malnourished children, that the international community must move immediately to provide the large quantities of food and non-food emergency assistance that will be necessary to prevent famine in Ethiopia again this year."
Hall's remarks contrasted sharply with an interview he gave to Reuters in November in which he said Ethiopia was unlikely to be facing a crisis on the scale of the 1984 famine that killed nearly one million Ethiopians.
According to Hall's report, 11.3 million victims of drought will require about 1.4 million tonnes of food aid in 2003, and an additional three million people will need to be closely monitored.
"With 20 percent of Ethiopia's population at risk, unless deftly handled, 2003 could well become a crisis of similar magnitude to the catastrophe of 1984," Hall said.
"Given the depth and wide geographic spread of the hunger, greater leadership and involvement of the United Nations at the country level is required," he added. "And donors need to be seized with a heightened sense of urgency."
The scenes at feeding sites were ones of despair and tragedy, Hall said.
"Mothers had nothing to offer their hungry children," he said. "Children who should have been playing had no energy to even move. Senior citizens looked decades older than they actually were."
Ethiopia is once again faced with the threat of famine, Hall said.
"It is even worse than I expected," he said. "There is a tremendous amount of malnutrition, and I am numbed by the sheer numbers of acutely malnourished children."
The famine of 1984-85 was followed by serious food shortages in 1992, 1994, 2000 and 2002. Of the country's 67.2 million people, almost half -- 28 million -- live in deep and long-term poverty, and are vulnerable to drought, acute malnutrition and even starvation, Hall said.
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