BRIAN STEWART: Again, the wide path of another drought, the high roof of Africa, of sun-blasted mountains and cracked riverbeds. After some years of decent harvests, rains have failed, crops die. Some of the poorest people on earth are left with virtually nothing. Ninety percent are bare subsistence farmers. In past droughts, they've had to sell off all they own. Now, 11 million -- 15 percent of the nation -- are too destitute to make it without help. Simply put, food aid must rumble up these isolated roads for a year or the death toll will again be immense.
This drought is fierce, there are five million more people at risk of famine than in '84 and the general level of health and poverty is even worse to begin with. Ethiopia is a unique country with some core strengths in any crisis. Never really colonized, it is fiercely proud and profoundly religious -- the second oldest Christian country on earth. This gives Ethiopia a strong sense of social cohesion that is striking to foreign aid workers like John Graham of Save the Children.
JOHN GRAHAM: You come here and you see very strong families, very strong moral values. So Ethiopia, for example, is an incredibly poor place, but there's very little crime.
BRIAN STEWART: Now both the dominant Christian orthodox church and Muslim leaders have united to call for national sharing. All here promise to help those in need, and Ethiopians are renowned for sharing whatever they have with extended families and poor neighbors.
JOHN GRAHAM: When there is a crisis here, people begin to donate part of their salaries, you know, you'll have entire departments or organizations where they'll get together and say "We're going to give, you know, 50 percent of our monthly salary into fighting against this drought."
BRIAN STEWART: Already across the North there's a sharp rise in malnutrition cases showing up at clinics. Fortunately, this is part of an efficient famine early warning system. Past governments tried to hide famines. Now clinics like this quickly report when the average weight of children begins to drop. Other early warnings are field reports by the Relief Society of Tigra, called REST. Drought and food shortages are checked daily by traveling experts like Sigia Assefa.
SIGIA ASSEFA: My experience, the drought is so bad that it resembles already, equal to the '84/'85 situation, except that the response mechanism is good now. The drought itself is equal to that of '84/'85. People have produced nothing.
BRIAN STEWART: What is going to happen if the world doesn't respond? What then?
SIGIA ASSEFA: Well, the need is enormous. If the response is very low, well, the thing would be very bad, extremely bad. We will see people dying. We will see people moving here and there. We will see a lot of beggars in the cities. The rural population will flood into the cities just for search of anything else it could get.
BRIAN STEWART: And this is exactly what Ethiopia must now prevent, a mass movement of the starving to overcrowded food aid camps. Many too famished simply died on the way. Others succumbed to diseases in the squalid camps. Tens of thousands forced down to the unfamiliar tropical south died of malaria. Here, mass movement equals mass death. So today, relief workers gather the hungry where they are, listen to them, find out their needs, bring food before panic movement sets in. This gathering is another part of the early warning system. We find out many are close to the edge.
MAN (Translated): We cannot get anything from the land now. In 1984 we got a little, but now it is very bad. WOMAN (Translated): During 1984, we left our land and our home. We were forced to leave our village and migrate. Now we are here, even under difficult times, we have not left our home.
BRIAN STEWART: Another key advantage now is that the long years of civil war and the more recent conflict with Eritrea have finally ended. Ethiopia's fragile democracy is still open. Prime Minister Meles Zenawi who led the old famine against the old dictatorship does not hide grim facts.
MELES ZENAWI, Prime Minister, Ethiopia: These are anxious moments for all of us here. The risks are there for everyone to see. Anything between 11 million to 14 million people are facing food shortages. We do not yet have the resources in our hands to be sure that we will manage in the coming months and we have political power to do something about it. So however difficult things might be, desperation and despair is not something that enters my mind.
BRIAN STEWART: The government is racing food reserves into the countryside. What is frightening is Ethiopia will need one and a half million tons of food from the world. Hour after hour, day after day the food is pouring out to go to the countryside and the sheds are emptying one after the other. If sheds like this ever completely empty, you will have mass starvation. And this is a nation that does not waste any food. Almost every family here lost members in that famine. Even a break in the steady flow of supply trucks carrying food to the countryside could trigger the start of another migration.
And it's here where fear is monitored -- weekly gatherings which locals call rumor markets. It's where peasant farmers meet every week to trade or sell what's left of their sheep and goats. Ethiopians hate having to ask for food. A big problem is many won't ask until they're too weak to go on. So they're now encouraged to take some aid before it's too late. Opposition leaders like Mayan Petros express a national anger at Ethiopia's constant weakness.
MAYAN PETROS, Opposition leader: Ethiopians feel that we are competent and we have proven that competence is no problem, and without competence and resourcefulness, we're embarrassed. It's embarrassing to always talk about famine and to go around, beg for food, and we're really embarrassed about not being able to feed ourselves.
BRIAN STEWART: At the orthodox service of Epiphany, priests bless holy water, which they will spray on the vast congregation. It is also a prayer for the rains to return and a call to hope.
JIM LEHRER: And in recent weeks since that report was completed, there has been some rain in Ethiopia, but more than 12.6 million Ethiopians still need food aid.