Food is scarce, diseases are in plenty and despair at a high in this scorched African country.

Despair gave way to desperation last week as an unrelenting drought continued to aggravate Ethiopia's distress.

The Ethiopian government increased its appeal for an additional 250,000 tonnes of food aid in addition to another 600,000 tonnes it had appealed for in April.

Responding to the plea, the European Union has shipped in 15,000 tonnes of food, with promises to send in some more.

But perhaps it has been a case of too little too late and Fatuma Mohammed is awaiting her turn to die.

Fatuma had lost two children in the drought-sticken Langano area, to the south of the capital Addis Ababa.

"I lost two of my children at their early ages, I am now waiting for my turn," a desolate Fatuma said.

"As you can see, I am getting weak and sick," she added.

With mortality rates spiralling, Fatuma's plight is shared by many among Ethiopia's impoverished 13.2 million people. 

The only silver lining could be that the present situation in Ethiopia may not be as bad as it was in 1984, when nearly a million died from the killer famine.

 

Food is scarce, diseases are in plenty and despair at a high in this scorched African country.


 

But that is barely a cause for cheer.

"Indeed it may not be as bad as the 1984 or the time before it. Here it is not the number that matters, it is the situation in whatever scale it is happening," a government official reminded.

And what is happening is alarming indeed.

According to the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), between 60,000 and 80,000 children could be threatened by malnutrition or worse by October 2004, if nothing is done.

Thousands of children need to be admitted to therapeutic feeding centres if they are to survive while malaria is threatening to wipe out a considerable population.