By Magdalena Mis
LONDON, Oct 23 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Millions of people in Ethiopia are in need of food assistance as the El Nino climate phenomenon has deepened a severe drought, aid agencies said on Friday.
The Horn of Africa nation has suffered low and erratic rainfall during both the spring and summer rainy seasons, creating food and water shortages.
More than 8 million people in Ethiopia now depend on food assistance, up from 4.6 million in August, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said last week, citing government figures.
The number of severely malnourished children, requiring special, therapeutic feeding is already higher than any month during a devastating 2011 drought which affected 13 million people across the Horn of Africa, according to OCHA.
"In the most impacted regions we have a significant crisis building," Jill Clements, head of the International Federation of Red Cross in Ethiopia, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a phone interview.
"We can see already that (El Nino) is having a detrimental effect on the already vulnerable people."
Ethiopia is one of the world's poorest countries, where rain-fed agriculture is the backbone of the economy, employing about three-quarters of the population.
The spring 'belg' rains run from February to April, and the main 'kiremt' rains fall from June to September.
Although the poor spring rains had nothing to do with El Nino, the summer rains arrived late and were erratic, almost certainly as a result of the phenomenon, a development expert said.
El Nino, caused by Pacific Ocean warming, leads to dry weather in some parts of the world and causes floods in others.
This year the phenomenon is expected to peak between October and January and could turn into one of the strongest on record. The last "super El Nino" was in 1997-8.
Clements said that as a result of reduced or delayed planting there are no crops in some regions of Ethiopia while water shortages resulted in livestock deaths.
The Ethiopian government has earmarked $192 million for emergency food and other assistance, diverting money from projects such as road construction, OCHA said.
But the government and humanitarian agencies have said Ethiopia needs nearly $600 million in international humanitarian assistance to deal with the crisis.
"The needs will continue to grow because the rainy seasons are months away. We're scrambling to find the resources to meet those needs before the situation deteriorates further," OCHA spokesman David Del Conte told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone from Ethiopia.
"This problem hit in the fourth quarter of the year when a great deal of (international) humanitarian resources had been allocated elsewhere."
Aid agency Oxfam said it had already started trucking water to people in the southeastern Somali Region of Ethiopia where wells and boreholes have dried up.
"It's expensive but it's essential," said John Magrath, an Oxfam researcher.
"There are huge relief needs but there is still time to provide relief before people lose all of their assets and the situation slides really catastrophically."
(Reporting by Magdalena Mis; Editing by Ros Russell; Please credit Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, corruption and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)