UNITED NATIONS -- Aid agencies are calling it the worst drought in 60 years.
Emergency relief workers are getting increasingly alarmed at the scale of a slow-moving disaster in the Horn of Africa, where months of dry weather is said to be threatening famine and a new humanitarian crisis.
Last week U.N. agencies monitoring a severe drought in Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya and Djibouti increased the volume on existing warnings over food shortages in the region, a consequence, they say, of an unprecedented dry spell, instability and higher global food prices.
Reports suggest parts of Somalia may already be on the verge of famine, a repeat of the emergency situation that occurred when the central government collapsed there two decades ago. Officials in the field are reporting adults from Somalia turning up in camps in Ethiopia and Kenya showing signs of severe malnutrition, with some even dying shortly after they arrive.
In April officials estimated that up to 8 million people in the region will be in need of emergency food aid as a consequence of the drought. That number has now been increased to 10 or 11 million in urgent need.
The U.N.'s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) is calling it the worst drought the region has experienced the early 1950s. And the problem is made much more difficult by the continuing anarchy and civil strife in most of Somalia, coupled with cross-border raids and violence between pastoral communities in the Ethiopian-Kenyan border.
However, refugees are being pushed from Somalia for a simple lack of food, said OCHA spokeswoman Stephanie Bunker. She estimates about 5,000 people are entering Ethiopia from Somalia every week.
"What people are saying is that those people who are arriving are arriving in bad shape," Bunker said in an interview. "We have not heard that there is a famine yet, but it is concerning that there are parts of Somalia where we simply don't know what the situation is and what condition the people are in." Bunker confirmed that some of those new arrivals have died from malnutrition.
'Downhill from here'
Normally taking the lead in coordinating relief efforts in such cases, OCHA has been joined in a chorus of warnings by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), the Food and Agriculture Organization, the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and the World Food Programme. All five U.N. organizations are working overtime to bring more publicity to the worsening situation in a news cycle dominated by the Arab Spring.
Drought conditions and extreme food shortages in the area at expected to last into 2012. "The prognosis is that it's going to go downhill from here," Bunker said.
"Resources are woefully inadequate," OCHA emergency relief coordinator Valerie Amos said in an interview with Minnesota Public Radio last week. "We have an appeal that is at the moment only 40 percent met. Some of the key sectors that are needed to protect and save the lives of people in Somalia are not being addressed at all."
Other U.N. agencies are painting a similarly dire picture of the food security situation in East Africa, but say they are assisting as best they can.
"Desperate hunger is looming across the Horn of Africa and threatening the lives of millions who are struggling to survive in the face of rising food prices and conflict," WFP executive director Josette Sheeran said in a release. "It is essential that we move quickly to break the destructive cycle of drought and hunger that forces farmers to sell their means of production as part of their survival strategy."
A map disseminated to governments by OCHA shows areas in the four countries close to the verge of famine, increasing the odds that that agency will issue a fresh appeal for relief funds and food aid soon.
Areas deemed to now exist in a state of emergency include the coastal region of Somalia northeast of Mogadishu, the far eastern and southern corners of Ethiopia, and most of Kenya's northeast frontier. Many of those regional emergencies are now classified as "critical" by the U.N. office and are at risk of tipping over to the worst classification of "famine/catastrophe" OCHA says.
Kenyan government blames climate change
Officials blame the failure of a normally wet season between April and June to deliver enough rain to sustain wild forage for cattle and other domesticated range animals, let alone enough rainfall sufficient for crops. But the dry spell has been traced to the beginning of last October when an anticipated rainy season also failed to deliver.
In June FAO officials declared that the persistently lower-than-average levels of precipitation in the eastern most part of the African continent had become "a chronic feature for the region." Kenyan government officials have blamed climate change on a recurrence of droughts that have led to blackouts in Nairobi and increased cross-border violence with neighboring Ethiopia as pastoral communities continually shift their herds in search of water and forage.
UNICEF estimates that about 25 percent of people in Kenya's far north are now suffering from acute malnutrition, including more than 37 percent of those living in the Lake Turkana area. Throughout the Horn of Africa the aid group warns that "millions of children and women are at risk from death and disease unless a rapid and speedy response is put into action."
Officials at UNICEF estimate that numbers of malnourished children in the Horn of Africa countries has increased by 50 percent over levels previously recorded.
"The last two rainy seasons were very weak and in part they failed in that region, and that's one of the key factors," said Michael Klaus, East Africa regional communications director for UNICEF, in a phone call from Nairobi. "The number of people coming over the border from Somalia to Kenya and Ethiopia has increased significantly. In the past two weeks it has definitely increased very much."
WFP says it will undertake a new emergency needs assessment this month but is already ramping up food relief efforts in areas hard hit by the drought. Already that agency says its extending emergency food assistance to 4.3 million in Ethiopia and around 2.4 million in Kenya. Officials there expect millions more to be added to the food aid rolls once the needs assessment is complete.