Addis Ababa, Ethiopia — The Western world is rallying to help meet one of the greatest natural calamities of modern times - up to 10 million people now are close to starvation in Ethiopia.
The scale of the famine is much larger than relief agencies or Western governments had thought even a few weeks ago. Its dimensions widen almost daily as new information comes in from the drought-stricken northern and southern interior.
New concerns here coincide with massive publicity and public response in the United States and Western Europe as recent television footage brings the faces of starving Ethiopia into millions of homes.
Ethiopian officials, in a switch of tone, now thank donors for the new aid beginning to come in. But they stress that much more needs to be done.
This newspaper has learned that five private relief agencies here are about to present the Reagan administration with a formal request for 200,000 more metric tons of emergency wheat, milk powder, and edible oils to cover the rest of this year and all of 1985.
This is a huge increase over agency estimates being drawn up just last month. Some agencies, acting on information reaching Addis Ababa in recent days, now believe that the entire country could require as much as 1.8 million metric tons of emergency food aid through 1985.
This figure is based on a revised estimate of 10 million people who may be close to starvation, and a minimum need of 500 grams of emergency food per person per day.
Several weeks ago, the Ethiopian Relief and Rehabilitation Commission said that 6.4 million people had registered for emergency food. Relief officials here say the figure was too low because it did not include seccessionist guerrillas in the provinces of Eritrea and Tigre.
They say that 8 million was a better estimate, but based on new figures from Tigre, 10 million is even more accurate. If true, this would represent about one Ethiopian in every four, based on a population of 35 million.
''We were all wrong about the size of the famine, and so we're working on the plan for 200,000 tons now to get it ready to submit by the end of the week,'' said Susan Barber, relief coordinator for Catholic Relief Services (CRS) in an interview here Sunday.
The five agencies have planned a strategy meeting in Addis Ababa Oct. 29. They hope that the first of the requested food could reach here by ship in January and be distributed internally by air.
The US government is said to be aware of the planned request. Relief agency sources believe that a new aid package of $45 million and some 80,000 tons of food announced several days ago in Washington by the head of the Agency for International Development, Peter McPherson, was in fact an early response.
Miss Barber, in cramped CRS offices on the airport road, said indications of the expanded size of the already-bad famine came at the end of September.
Agency officials had telephoned from Makale, capital of Tigre, to say that the number of displaced people walking into town to obtain food had begun to shoot upward from the then-total of 7,000.
Sources at the Christian Relief Development Association (CRDA), an umbrella group of 26 private relief agencies from nine countries, confirmed this. They said that 14,000 people a week began to arrive until some 40,000 people were camped in and around Makale.
''It was horrific,'' Barber said. ''CRS had requested our headquarters in New York to ask Washington to send 32,000 tons of food for all of 1985. We realized we had underestimated.''
CRS plays a key role here. It handles all US government food aid sent to Ethiopia under Public Law 480, Title II (concessional food aid) and coordinates distribution.
US law prevents official US development aid because the Marxist government of Mengistu Haile Mariam nationalized US property after the 1974 revolution and has refused to pay compensation.
The five agencies involved in the new plan are CRS, World Vision (a Protestant agency), CRDA, the Ethiopian Catholic Secretariat, and a combination of two agencies working as one unit: the Ethiopian Evangelical Mekane Yesus, and the Lutheran World Federation.
Twenty-five thousand tons of the new aid would go to Tigre; another 25,000 tons to Eritrea. Guerrillas in both provinces have been waging war against the central government for almost 10 years. The rest of the aid would go to other provinces.
One question is whether such massive amounts could be handled by the Ethiopian ports of Massawa and Assab, or by nearby Djibouti.
CRS says that improvements can be made and that private agencies are geared up. CRS adds that aircraft should be used where possible inside Ethiopia. Both CRS and CRDA admit, however, that many more trucks are needed as well as better unloading procedures in Assab.
The Rev. Gus O'Keefe, coordinator for CRDA, said the world donor community is doing a good job but that much more remains to be done. He confirmed the new request for 200,000 tons would be made to the US and added that other donors may be approached, including Canada, the European Community, and Australia.
''The scenes here now are tragic,'' Barber said. ''Near Makale recently people were eating blades of grass. In the south 10 days ago I saw 2,000 children sitting out in the open waiting for food. One four-year-old boy looked about 8 months old. His brother was 8 years old. Their mother had died.
''What are we going to do for children like these....?''
These are some of the responses:
* The Ethiopian government has assigned 50 Army trucks and two Soviet built Antonov-12 transport aircraft to move grain.
Two Antonovs flew Oct. 24 and Oct. 25 from Asmara to Makale carrying 10 tons of food on each of several trips. At this writing the Antonov planes have delivered about 115 tons of food, mostly Canadian wheat flour and US milk powder. Relief officials calculate that the 115 tons can feed 6,900 people for one month.
* Fr. O'Keefe reported Sunday that a convoy of 42 trucks had reached Makale from Massawa carrying 924 tons of food, enough to feed 55,000 people for one month. ''It's the best news we've had, and the first convoy to make it through for several months,'' O'Keefe said. ''The convoy made the trip in only three days.''
CRDA is paying the $54 per ton transport costs of the convoy which is cheaper than air freight but ''air transport is still necessary right now,'' O'Keefe said.
* The head of the Ethiopian Relief and Rehabilitation Commission, Dawat Wolde Giorgis, has welcomed a British offer of two transport planes to help ferry food inside Ethiopia.
In London, however, on his way to the United Nations for talks about the famine, Mr. Wolde Giorgis criticized the international community for failing to respond to past Ethiopian appeals.
* Britain has just promised 3,000 tons of food aid followed by another 6,000 tons and some $6 million.
* The International Committee of the Red Cross has been flying a Hercules C- 130 transport plane able to carry 21 tons of food per trip between Addis Ababa and Wollo Province since Oct. 22.
* The Netherlands has offered another Hercules transport and some $3.8 million for famine relief.
* The West German government is said to be discussing a new aid package including new Mercedes trucks and a line of credit to keep them running.
* The European Community in Brussels, besieged by requests from private agencies, has promised 10,000 more tons of food and is about to decide on another 25,000 tons together with almost $2 million to pay distribution costs.
* United Nations officials called Oct. 26 for more urgent aid for Ethiopia.
Relief officials, while grateful for public response, issue reminders that starvation is not unique to Ethiopia. Drought and famine are affecting millions more Africans to the west and in the south along the east coast in countries including Kenya, Zimbabwe, and Mozambique.