Even Bob Geldof sounded weary yesterday faced with the appeal from the leader of Ethiopia for what will be the biggest food relief operation yet. The warning is that some 14 million people will be at risk of starvation in a matter of months, dwarfing even the terrible famine of 1984-85 in which a million people are thought to have died, and which prompted Geldof to start Live Aid, the biggest charity appeal in the history of the world.
"The facts speak for themselves," the Prime Minister of Ethiopia, Meles Zenawi, told BBC radio yesterday morning. "In the disaster we had in 1984-85, the number involved was roughly a third to one half of the number of people involved now. If that was a nightmare, this will be too ghastly to contemplate."
The first signs of catastrophe are there already. Across the country 84 per cent of the crop has failed. Cereal prices have rocketed, just as that of cattle and goats has plummeted as the animals become thinner and unproductive after a year-long drought that has deprived them of grazing.
People are on the move, in search of food. Reports of malnourished children – their bellies swollen and their limbs shrivelled from the wasting of hunger – are mounting. At least 10 children have starved to death in drought-stricken families who fled to Bale, one of Ethiopia's national parks, seeking refuge.
The fear is that they are only the first of many. The World Food Programme (WFP) says there is enough cereal stored in the country's strategic food reserve to last until next month – albeit by handing out rations below the level needed for a barely adequate diet. But after that stocks will run out.
The WFP estimates that in the first quarter of next year Ethiopia will need between 350,000 and 500,000 tons of grain. And if the worst fears are recognised, some 2.2 million tons of food could be needed for 2003. "These figures are staggering," said Georgia Shaver, the WFP representative in Ethiopia.
In a perverse way all this is good news. For it shows that the early warning systems put in place after the Live Aid famine have worked. The 23 teams of the Ethiopian government's Disaster Prevention and Preparedness Commission have returned from their annual pre-harvest survey. Its results suggest that the crisis will strike in January or February.
That is sufficient time for the international community to get its act together. Swift food aid can avert disaster.
And yet the Ethiopians have been saying that for months. The subject has only now made the headlines, as the famine that prompted Live Aid did, when a BBC reporter hit the airwaves yesterday with a shocking tale of an eight-year-old preparing for death. It seems that for all the early warning systems no one really takes any notice until the children die.
The Ethiopian government's monitoring and strategic food reserve systems have worked well. Or as well as the rich nations have allowed. They make pledges to keep the reserve topped up, but in recent years they have let it fall steadily below the amount required. And the food in the pipeline to replace what has been used in earlier small emergencies has moved slowly and often stopped altogether.
Small emergencies are routine in Ethiopia. Even in a good year it cannot produce all the food it needs. In a bad one – and according to the 2002 World Disasters Report, "the past two years have seen the highest number of weather-related disasters reported over the decade" – the shortfall is considerable. The last famine was in 1999-2000, in which between 6,000 and 20,000 people quietly died.
Some 90 per cent of Ethiopians depend upon rain-fed agriculture. If either the short or the long rains fall short, the consequences are immediate and severe. This year they both failed entirely.
The reason that crisis turns so swiftly to catastrophe is that the legacy of those previous years is carried by the people into the next one. Few of the hundreds of thousands of cattle that died in the 2000 famine have been replaced. Children have been without milk, which makes them particularly vulnerable. The ability to cope with yet another disaster is reduced, year by year, to the narrowest of margins. For a people who live so perilously on the edge, very little is needed to push them over the precipice.
"So, year after year, people are forced to migrate, or sell off what few assets they have," says Dan Maxwell, the regional food security adviser for the US charity Care. "A larger and larger proportion of population is living on the edge."
And the drought cycle is becoming ever more severe and frequent as global weather patterns deteriorate. As many as 30 million of the country's 67 million population are vulnerable at any one time, according to Andrew Pendleton of Christian Aid.
The first signs of impending disaster are evident. To the north, in Eritrea, the drought has hit the fertile plains of the west, the traditional breadbasket of the country, where acute malnutrition is showing up in areas that have never before had problems.
The Catholic agency Cafod reports queues outside churches for food handouts and the first supplementary feeding programme for malnourished children. In the south, at the other end of the Horn of Africa, Oxfam has been incinerating animal carcasses to stop the spread of disease. It too has set up its first supplementary feeding programme.
In the vast areas between, crops have everywhere failed. "The situation is really bad, particularly in lowland areas," says Donald Mavunduse, emergencies programme adviser for Action Aid, who has just completed a three-week survey in the region. "In pockets malnutrition is really bad already." The next sign will be what the aid industry politely terms "excess mortality".
All of which highlights the key dilemma at the heart of the international response to Third World destitution. Governments in rich nations tend to assume that African governments, aid agencies and UN bodies always put the worst possible spin on any situation to increase the resources put at their disposal. The problem for the aid world is that it has to risk being accused of sometimes crying wolf if it is not to risk leaving disaster response too late.
What has become clear is that the poor of the world have an increasingly narrower margin to tolerate the West's "show us the dead bodies" scepticism – and meanwhile, the rich world continues to exact debt repayments from nations such as Ethiopia and rigs world trade so that the price of Ethiopia's chief export, coffee, has over the past three years plummeted to a 30-year low.
It is a fatal combination. The poor's margin of tolerance steadily decreases, while the rich world continues to wait until it sees the skeleton children before it is galvanised into action. Unless something changes, risk will turn to reality, and it will do so again and again and again.