Tens of thousands of refugees in Ethiopia face severe food shortages early next year, the UN's World Food Programme warned on Tuesday.
It has appealed for US $5.3 million to help feed 123,000 refugees – mainly from war-ravaged Sudan and Somalia.
Wagdi Othman, spokesman for WFP, said that the lack of food could hamper efforts to help Somali refugees return home.
In 2002, over 29,000 Somalis went home, allowing two of the five remaining Somali refugee camps to be closed.
“WFP will face a food pipeline break early in 2004 unless contributions are provided immediately,” Othman said.
“Despite progress towards peace in Sudan, refugees are not expected to return home in 2004 and will continue to rely on the international community's assistance,” he added.
“A major funding shortage and the resulting break in food supplies would lead to widespread malnutrition among the refugees who depend on WFP and UNHCR assistance, and put lives at risk,” Othman noted.
Ethiopia itself is currently reeling from a complex humanitarian emergency that has left 13.2 million in need of food aid.
Othman's comments came as WFP launched two fund-raising concerts in the capital Addis Ababa with Ethiopia’s renowned female vocalist Aster Aweke.
Othman also revealed a major study assessing the food needs for 2004 has just been completed. The figures will form the basis of an international appeal in December.
Humanitarian agencies predict as many as nine million people may need food aid despite the government announcing a good harvest this year.
Aid agencies argue that a lack of attention is being paid to health, education and water which are all vital if Ethiopia is to escape the cycle of dependency.