UN expecting to feed 6.5 million Ethiopians this year

GENEVA Tue May 13, 2014 9:11am EDT

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GENEVA (Reuters) - The World Food Programme will help to feed nearly 6.5 million Ethiopians this year, the U.N. agency said on Tuesday, with the country hit by locusts, neighboring war and sparse rainfall.

"We are concerned because there is the beginning of a locust invasion in the eastern part of the country, and if it's not properly handled it could be of concern for the pastoralist population living there," WFP spokeswoman Elizabeth Byrs told a U.N. briefing in Geneva.

"And in the northern part of Ethiopia there has been less rain than average for the third or fourth consecutive year."

Ethiopia is also dealing with growing refugee numbers due to the conflict in neighboring South Sudan, sapping WFP's budget for feeding new arrivals in the country, which is at risk of a shortfall as soon as next month.

More than 120,000 South Sudanese have crossed over into Ethiopia in the past six months, mostly women and children who are arriving "famished, exhausted and malnourished", WFP said in a statement.

The recent influx has brought total refugee numbers to 500,000 in Ethiopia. The U.N. also provides food for millions of needy or undernourished Ethiopians, including 670,000 school children and 375,000 in HIV/AIDS programs.

Ethiopia's overall situation has vastly improved over recent years and the economy now ranks as one of the fastest growing in Africa. But deep problems remain.

Malnutrition has stunted the growth of two out of every five Ethiopian children and reduced the country's workforce by 8 percent, WFP said, citing Ethiopian government data.

The International Monetary Fund expects Ethiopia's economy to grow 7.5 percent in each of the next two fiscal years but says the government needs to encourage more private sector investment to prevent growth rates from falling thereafter.

(Reporting by Tom Miles Editing by Jeremy Gaunt)

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