NAIROBI – Severe food shortages are set to increase for more people as the impact of drought, along with high food and fuel prices, continues to grip the Horn of Africa region, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) warned. Levels of acute malnutrition are widespread and increasing. More than 8 million people in Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia are in need of emergency assistance.

This region has now experienced two consecutive seasons of significantly below-average rainfall, resulting in failed crop production, depletion of grazing resources and significant livestock mortality.

"The current crisis is not an unusual or chance event, but rather a chronic feature of the region,” said Rod Charters, regional emergency coordinator for Eastern and Central Africa. “The challenge ahead is to empower farmers and pastoralists to adapt to the new realities of high variability of weather patterns and more frequent extreme weather events.

"Together with our partners of the Regional Food Security and Nutrition Working Group, we have been preparing for this drought scenario since the failure of last year's short rains,” he added.

Malnutrition rates in Somalia are amongst the worst in the world — one in four children in southern Somalia are acutely malnourished. The drought is affecting most parts of the country, leading to livestock deaths and sky-rocketing food prices, which make it increasingly difficult for poor families to feed themselves.

At present, 2.5 million people — one in three Somalis — are in need of humanitarian assistance, but with the ongoing conflict in the South, coupled with the poor outlook for the upcoming harvest, many more Somalis may fall into severe crisis.

More than 2.4 million people in Kenya in the pastoralist and agropastoralist areas of northern and northeastern regions are estimated to be unable to meet their basic food and water needs. The food security situation is expected to further deteriorate as milk production in the drought-affected areas has collapsed and will not recover until October when the short rains are expected to start.

Distances to water have doubled to 30-40 kms in many areas and conflicts have occurred over grazing resources, leading to loss of human lives and livestock, along with constrained market access. Emergency interventions are urgently required to mitigate the impact and protect further livelihood and nutritional deterioration.

In Ethiopia, a La Niña episode has resulted in the failure of two consecutive seasons of rain, water shortages, very poor pasture and marked deterioration in livestock conditions resulting in much reduced livestock prices in south and southeastern lowlands. In Borena Zone, on the southern border with Kenya, 220 000 cattle deaths have been reported.

Very high food and fuel prices are adding to the difficulties of poor households in accessing food across the region. The Horn of Africa requires urgent additional funds to protect and rebuild livestock assets, distribute suitable farm inputs that include drought-tolerant seeds, fodder and water for breeding stocks, as well as animal and plant disease surveillance and control.