ADDIS ABABA, 7 Dec 2002 (IRIN) - Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi launched an international appeal on Saturday to help av

ETHIOPIA: Prime Minister launches relief appeal

ADDIS ABABA, 7 Dec 2002 (IRIN) - Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi launched an international appeal on Saturday to help avert a looming famine threatening millions in the country. He spoke out as his government revealed that more than eleven million people would need food aid in the Horn of Africa country for next year.

A further three million people are at risk unless they receive help - in total needing over 1.5 million metric tons of food aid.

By January some seven million will need aid but pledges still fall short of requirements.

Meles warned that thousands of deaths could be avoided if the rest of the world takes the scale of the mounting crisis seriously.

It is the first time an Ethiopian Prime Minister has spoken at the annual Disaster Prevention and Preparedness Commission (DPPC) emergency appeal in the country.

Each year some four million people in the country - where the average annual income is only US $108 - need food aid to survive. That number is also increasing. He added that Ethiopia needs to start tackling the long-term consequences of food insecurity and said that poverty was the root cause.

"There is a chronic predictable underlying structural problem that needs to be addressed not after the emergency has passed but in conjunction with addressing the emergency.

"We need to develop strategies to fight poverty which is at the root of the problem," the prime minister added at the UNís Conference Centre in Addis Ababa. The Prime Minister added that sufficient mechanisms to deliver aid were in place to prevent famine and that it was food that was needed.

"What we need are resources," he told several hundred ambassadors, senior United Nations officials and representatives of aid organizations.

"We have a good system lets use it to deliver aid in time."

Simon Mechale, head of the Ethiopian governmentís emergency arm, said that millions of dollars would be needed to tackle the crisis.

Mechale added that harvests were 25 percent down on previous years and that the country faced acute water shortages and livestock had been wiped out.

"The challenge ahead is not only to make pledges and commitments but also to deliver them as quickly as possible," he said at the appeal, supported by the UNís Emergencies Unit in Ethiopia.

The DPPC Commissioner also warned that the drought was sparking fears of epidemics in regions hardest hit like Afar in the north east of the country.

"The emergency situation is real and very serious," Mechale added. "The problem has become a major challenge to the government and people of Ethiopia." He added that it was "imperative" that relief arrived "large, fast and uninterrupted".

He also revealed that emergency food stocks in the country had reached critically low levels. "The government is seriously concerned that failure to quickly deliver and sustain it would cause the death and displacement of victims we have so far successfully prevented."

The UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Ethiopia, Samuel Nyambi, said the magnitude of the crisis should not be underestimated. He told aid organizations that the numbers in need could actually grow before the year is out adding that support for water and health interventions were also desperately needed.