Morris said that between April and June, more than 11 million people wouldface the most acute and stark hunger of the year. More relief food ships must be sent from overseas to arrive in time - especially ahead of the rainy season in June, when remote areas would be cut off from assistance.
"The crisis barometer is inching out of the danger zone - but the needs are so colossal, so urgent and so desperate, we must do everything humanly possible to avoid a sudden slip downwards," said Morris."Even a brief interruption of food supplies could spell death for the most vulnerable."
Speaking at the end of a five-day mission to Ethiopia, Morris said that Ethiopians were among more than 38 million people in Africa facing a calamity of enormous proportions this year. The devastating effects of drought, HIV/AIDS, floods, conflict and economic decline in many parts of Africa have converged to pose one of the biggest challenges ever to the international relief community.
In Ethiopia alone, 1.4 million metric tons of relief food are needed this year, against which some 700,000 tons have now been pledged (US$ 230 million). WFP intends to cover about 40 percent of the country's food aid needs, and still requires 350,000 tons of food aid, including urgent supplies of fortified blended food for the malnourished and weak.
During Morris' trip to Ethiopia, the first since his April 2002 appointment as WFP Executive Director, he spoke with drought-affected communities in Arsi, 150 kilometres south of the capital, Addis. Normally a surplus food producing area, now many villages have turned into nothing more than bleak dust bowls.
"The villagers told me stories of sheer desperation: how they lost their entire crop, their animals and their seeds. They are clinging onto the hope that more help will come before it's too late," said Morris.
He saw a three-year-old child who looked just half her age - skinny legs and distended stomach visible as she curled up on her mother's lap. Many schools are closing due to high student drop-out rates because children are kept at home to help earn money for the family.
Morris also visited projects in the area to see impressive efforts by villagers to conserve water, to reforest, and to rehabilitate valuable land which has eroded into gullies. WFP impact studies of these projects, which received food-for-work incentives, indicate that those people involvedare far more resilient to shocks such as the current drought and thus require less food aid support.
WFP is seeking to help millions of people in the most vulnerable areas of Ethiopia with small-scale projects of this type, in addition to providing school feeding for primary students, and food aid support for victims of HIV/AIDS. However the number of people to be assisted has been slashed by half this year due to a global trend of declining resources to WFP for non-emergency assistance.
"If we are to help break this chronic cycle of emergencies, we simply must make major investments to helppeople withstand climatic shocks," said Morris. "Comparatively, it takes so little money today to stimulate greatly improved lives for people tomorrow."
Yesterday, Morris discussed both emergency and development issues with the Ethiopian Prime Minister, Meles Zenawi. He also met various government officials, key donor representatives,heads of relief agencies and the UN Country Team.
Upon his departure from Ethiopia on 21 January, Morris will travel to Johannesburg from where he will commence a seven-day mission to the southern Africa region, host to more than 15 million people affected by severe food shortages. Morris will travel in his capacity as the United Nations Secretary General's Special Envoy for Humanitarian Needs for Southern Africa.
Note to media: Digital photographs from Morris' field visit on 18 January are available to journalists by contacting Wagdi Othman, Tel. + 251-9-201976.
To find out more about growing hunger in Africa and the global campaign to assist more than 38 million people across the continent, go to WFP's "Africa Hunger Alert" webpage. Videos and photos are also available: www.wfp.org/AfricaHungerAlert.
WFP is the world's largest humanitarian agency. In 2001, WFP fed more than 77 million people in 82 countries including most of the world's refugees and internally displaced people.
For more information please contact:
Wagdi Othman, WFP Public Information
Officer, Ethiopia, Tel. +251-9-201976
Brenda Barton, WFP Regional Information Officer, Kenya, Tel. +254-733-528912
Trevor Rowe, WFP Chief Spokesperson, Tel. +39-06-65132602
Christiane Berthiaume, Public Affairs Officer, WFP Geneva, Tel. +41-22-9178564
Khaled Mansour, Public Information Officer, WFP New York, Tel +1-212-9635196