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Ethiopia is in the grip of its worst drought in decades

Two women wait to collect water in drought stricken Ethiopia. Credit: Reuters

In Africa there is a humanitarian emergency unfolding that has largely escaped the world’s attention.

It is a prodigious drought and it holds much of the continent in an unforgiving grip.

Here in Ethiopia it is reckoned to be the worst for 50 years.

Watch John's report from Ethiopia:

The culprit is long-term climate change coinciding with a hot and unwelcome blast of El Nino.

The result? Successive rains have failed. And when the rains fail, so do the harvests.

In a nation where three quarters of the population relies on farming, that’s a disaster.

And so a great hunger has arrived which will render as many as 15 million people in need of urgent aid.

430,000
The predicted number of children at risk from suffering from severe malnutrition this year.

We travelled to Afar province in the north; a land of stones and sand and of unrelenting sun.

At a clinic supported by the British charity Save the Children, we watched as mothers presented their babies to be screened for malnutrition.

They’re weighed and a tape measure wound around their thin arms.

A baby is tested for signs of malnutrition at a Save the Children supported clinic in Afar province Credit: ITV News

When the marker shows red; it means the child is dangerously malnourished.

They told us they came across 25 new cases each week.

  • Muhammed
Muhammed's mother expressed her fears for her severely malnourished son. Credit: ITV News

Muhammed is just one and is suffering from severe malnutrition.His mother, Asli, carried him for four hours, walking through the desert, to visit the clinic.

‘’We have nothing to feed him at home. Our cattle have died and we have no milk for the children.

Of course I am worried about Muhammed. He has a fever and has been very sick.’'

Malnourished children fall easy prey to many common diseases that can prove fatal, doctors at the clinic told us.

  • Dohra
One-year-old Dohra, who is suffering from severe malnutrition, is fed a high protein paste to help restore her health. Credit: ITV News

This one-year-old girl is suffering from severe malnutrition. She’s been fed a high protein paste that should restore her to health. But the problem for Dohra is there is no food at home for her.

Her mother, who is also underweight, told me she is no longer producing breast milk for her daughter.

"All our cattle have died and we have no meat at home. We are entirely reliant on the food we get from the government, she told me.''

  • Muhammed Abdu
Muhammed Abdu had grown weak and sick after having little to eat for a number of weeks. Credit: ITV News

This is Muhammed Abdu and his mother Myra who told us her young son had had little to eat for many weeks and had grown weak and sick.

''Without help, the land around here will become one big graveyard,'' the village chief told us.

The children are given special food supplements. With luck they recover. But often only for a while.

‘’But we find that after two weeks back in their community, we see them again with the same problem,’’ Solomon Abraha, a government health worker told me.

‘’There’s just not enough food at home.’’

A grand appeal has been launched to fund the response.

$1.4bn
is the staggering total needed - but less than half has been promised.

The international community has been focused on terror and migration, and by the humanitarian catastrophes in Syria and Yemen.

But this is a bad time for donor fatigue to set in.

Even if the next rains arrive on time - and there is no sign of that happening - the next harvest won’t come until towards the end of year.

So for Ethiopians, the hungriest months, and for the children of Afar, the most dangerous moments, are just beginning.