By Katy Migiro
NAIROBI, Jan 21 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Donors are not responding fast enough to an "unprecedented" drought in Ethiopia, where over 400,000 children under five are severely malnourished despite strong economic growth and big development gains over the last decade, aid agencies said.
Ethiopia is experiencing its worst drought in 50 years, and 10.2 million people - one-tenth of the population - cannot feed themselves because their crops and animals have died.
"We've definitely been ringing the alarm since last summer but I think, sadly, sometimes it takes pictures of children suffering to get people to actually take things seriously," Carolyn Miles, president of Save the Children in the United States, said after visiting Ethiopia's Afar and Amhara regions.
About one-quarter of the $1.4 billion needed to respond to the crisis has been pledged, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said, but most of these contributions have not yet been paid.
In a malnutrition centre in the northeastern lowlands of Afar, Miles met a little boy who had been admitted for severe malnutrition for the second time in two months.
"Sending kids back into a situation where they don't have enough food to really stay out of severe malnutrition, some of those kids are really suffering," she said.
Ethiopia is the charity's humanitarian priority globally.
Africa's second most populous nation has been hit by two consecutive failed rains, most recently due to the El Nino weather phenomenon - a warming of sea-surface temperatures in the Pacific - which is causing hunger around the globe.
"This drought is on a scale and a level that nobody has ever seen before," Charlie Mason, Save the Children's humanitarian director, said. "It's an event driven by El Nino that is very much unprecedented and potentially catastrophic."
Ethiopia received less rain in 2015 than at any time since meteorological records began in the 1960s, Mason said.
FOOD AID INADEQUATE
In Amhara, Miles met a mother who was unable to breastfeed her three-month-old twins because income from her restaurant had fallen by 70 percent and she was not getting enough food aid.
Families told Miles they were receiving food aid every six weeks or so but it only lasted about one week. "It's just not enough of a ration for people to live on," she said.
The government has taken a lead, giving $300 million in emergency aid over the last few months, but the scale of the crisis is immense, agencies said.
"Trying to feed the population of Greater London every month, spread across a country the size of France and Spain is no mean feat," said Mason.
The World Food Programme (WFP), the main provider of food aid, has received only 13 percent of the money it needs up until June, which is part of the total $1.4 billion U.N. target.
"These contributions do not come close to meeting the $481 million which is required," the WFP said in emailed comments. "Urgent contributions are essential now to be able to sustain the response."
It takes about three months for food aid pledged by a donor to reach the person who needs it. The largest donor is the United States, which gives aid in the form of food to be shipped around the globe.
The WFP tries to speed up the process by asking for cash to buy food locally, but there is not enough food on sale in the region to meet Ethiopia's needs.
"In order for that food to make any difference it's got to be pledged right now," said Miles.
(Reporting by Katy Migiro, editing by Tim Pearce. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, corruption and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)