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A man carries animal feed in the Sitti Zone of Ethiopia, April 8, 2016. The lack of rain has affected food production and increased concerns about malnutrition.

Mulugeta Ayene/AP

Aid groups say millions of dollars' worth of Canadian development advances in Ethiopia are at risk as the East African country deals with its worst drought in 30 years, leaving more than 10 million people in need of food assistance.

Ethiopia is a country of focus for the Canadian government's international development efforts and Canada is the fifth-largest bilateral donor, providing tens of millions of dollars a year for food security, economic growth, democracy and human-rights initiatives, and maternal, newborn and child health. However, Canadian aid organizations working in Ethiopia say they are concerned about the impact of the ongoing drought on recent development gains.

Patricia Erb, president and CEO of Save the Children Canada, visited Ethiopia in February. She said the trip left her "haunted," particularly because Ethiopia is doing "all of the right things" to advance the well-being of its people. For instance, the country reached many of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals by 2015, reducing poverty, hunger and child-mortality rates.

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"Many of these gains that were achieved by the country, but also with international support, are at risk of going down now because of this drought," Ms. Erb said.

The drought is a result of the El Nino weather phenomenon, which has adversely affected seasonal rains in Ethiopia, causing crops to die and killing livestock. The lack of rain has affected food production and increased concerns about malnutrition. In December, the Ethiopian government said 10.2 million people were in need of food assistance, of which the United Nations Children's Fund said 435,000 children were suffering from severe acute malnutrition.

Ms. Erb saw the devastating effects of the drought during her visit to the Sitti zone in northeastern Ethiopia.

"The amount of dust in the air – it's all brown. You don't see green. And you don't see anything. Almost like it's dead, and it's because the animals are missing," Ms. Erb said. "And then you get to communities … and the mothers have these haunting eyes because of the malnourished children."

Ann Witteveen, Oxfam Canada's humanitarian manager, was in Ethiopia last week. She said the drought is already having some negative impacts on international development gains.

"Some schools are cancelled because there's just not enough water to run them or parents have taken their kids out of school because they've had to move their households near to places where there is water."

Canadian development projects in Ethiopia are also on the brink of losing ground. CARE Canada Global Health Manager Marnie Davidson has concerns about a maternal, newborn and child health nutrition program her organization just finished in the central Oromia region.

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"I suspect, if we're not able to respond quickly enough, that we're going to see drastic increases in wasting [low weight for height] in the immediate term and stunting [low height for age], which is a longer-term indicator," Ms. Davidson said.

Aid groups say the time to act is now, as countries around the world had only committed 51 per cent of the $1.4-billion (U.S.) needed to deal with the crisis at the end of March. Save the Children Canada, Oxfam Canada and the Christian Children's Fund of Canada are calling on the Canadian government to step up with more emergency humanitarian assistance for Ethiopia.

"Additional support from the Canadian government toward the Ethiopian drought response would assist aid organizations, like CCFC, in the effort to address the critical needs in Ethiopia at this time," said communications manager Bonar Bell.

Last year, Canada provided $35-million (Canadian) to help deal with the drought, as a part of a total $50.5-million the government spent on humanitarian assistance in Ethiopia. The government has set aside $73-million for development assistance in Ethiopia this fiscal year.

In an interview on Wednesday, International Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau said the Ethiopian drought is on the government's radar and that it is considering additional funding for the country.

"I have a team of experts looking at it right now, so I'm waiting for their recommendation."

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