By Edmund Blair
ADDIS ABABA (Reuters) - The drought relief effort in Ethiopia needs about $500 million to fund programs beyond the end of April to support 10.2 million people facing critical food shortages this year, the U.N. World Food Programme said on Thursday.
Ethiopia is battling one of its worst droughts in decades that in parts of the country eclipses the 1984 crisis, when rain failures and conflict caused famine that killed an estimated 1 million people.
This time, the Horn of Africa nation is at peace and has an economy that has grown rapidly for more than a decade, helping the government put in place agriculture, health and social programs to build resilience against lean periods.
But the scale of this drought, blamed on the El Nino weather phenomenon, is even overwhelming those measures.
"We are really on the cliff's edge as we speak," WFP Country Director John Aylieff told Reuters, saying the $500 million had to be raised by the end of February so resources could be in place by the end of April.
"It's a really tall order for donors to suddenly mobilize the immense amount of resources needed for the Ethiopian crisis this year. I would also say it is a tall order for the mother in the highlands of Ethiopia to watch her children waste away."
The government, WFP and a group of charities such as Save the Children are working on the relief effort. The government is already spending about $300 million and other funds have come from the United States, Canada, European states and others. About $38 million was committed this week, the WFP said.
But more is needed when international aid budgets are stretched by crises such as the Syria conflict.
An estimated $1.4 billion is expected to be spent in 2016 to cover relief food and other requirements in Ethiopia. But some experts say that estimate may prove inadequate, after rains failed in 2015 and with the 2016 outlook unclear.
Ethiopia has tried to prepare for such times, given 80 percent of its people rely on farming, mostly rain-fed.
One initiative is the Productive Safety Net Programme, which helps about 7.9 million people deemed to be chronically food insecure by providing food or cash transfers in return for community works. Now an additional 10.2 million are struggling.
The government has dug into strategic food reserves, but the cost of the effort is a major burden for a nation which is still one of the poorest per capita in Africa despite a fast growing economy.
Aylieff said the relief effort had stabilized the situation from August when there was a spike in new cases of malnutrition, with 43,000 children admitted for treatment for severe acute malnutrition in a single month.
"Unless we can sustain a solid relief response in Ethiopia, we risk going back to a situation of spiking severe acute malnutrition," he said.
(Additional reporting by Aaron Maasho; Writing by Edmund Blair; Editing by Toby Chopra)