Ethiopian drought is "code red" for newborns and their mothers: NGO

Addis Ababa: Some 350,000 babies are expected to be born by August into severe food shortages in Ethiopia's worst drought in 50 years, the charity Save the Children said, urging leaders to raise the alarm at the African Union summit this week.

One-tenth of Ethiopians - about 10.2 million people - cannot feed themselves because their crops and animals have died despite strong economic growth and development gains over the last decade.

"Giving birth in a desperate situation where there are already serious food shortages, and where livestock have died en masse taking away a vital source of nutrition for breastfeeding mothers, is extremely dangerous for both newborns and their mothers," said Save the Children's country director John Graham.

Pregnant and lactating mothers who are malnourished are less likely to deliver safely and will struggle to feed their underweight newborns, he said in a statement.

"This is a code red emergency and it needs to be treated like one, yet I have never seen such a small response to a drought of this magnitude from the U.N. (United Nations) or the international community."

About a quarter of the $1.4 billion needed to respond to the crisis has been pledged, the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said, but most of these contributions have not yet been paid.

Africa's second most populous nation has been hit by two consecutive failed rains, most recently due to the El Nino weather phenomenon - a warming of sea-surface temperatures in the Pacific that is causing hunger around the globe.

"The scale of the drought in Ethiopia is like nothing I've seen before in the 19 years that I've lived in this country," Graham said.

More than 2.5 million children are expected to drop out of school due to the drought this year, the charity said.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is among world leaders expected at the African Union summit, which opened last week and culminates in a heads of state assembly on Saturday and Sunday.