A global charity, Oxfam International, has launched a 9.5-million-British pound (about 15.2 million U.S. dollars) emergency appeal to reach 750,000 in need of food assistance, warning that drought has pushed millions of East Africans to severe hunger due to failed rains.
The agency said more than 23 million people are being pushed towards severe hunger and destitution across East Africa.
"This is the worst humanitarian crisis Oxfam has seen in East Africa for over ten years. Failed and unpredictable rains are ever more regular across East Africa as raining seasons shorten due to the growing influence of climate change,” Paul Smith Lomas, Oxfam's East Africa Director said.
He said droughts have increased from once a decade to every two or three years. In Wajir, northern Kenya, Oxfam said almost 200 dead animals were recently found around one dried-up water source.
“People are surviving on two liters of water a day in some places -- less water than a toilet flush. The conditions have never been so harsh or so inhospitable, and people desperately need our help to survive,” said Lomas.
The agency said a severe and persistent five-year drought, deepened by climate change, is now stretching across seven countries in the region and exacting a heavy human toll, made worse by high food prices and violent conflict.
According to Oxfam, the worst affected countries are Kenya, Ethiopia, Somalia and Uganda. Other countries hit are Sudan, Djibouti and Tanzania. Malnutrition is now above emergency levels in some areas and hundreds of thousands of cattle -- people's key source of income -- are dying.
This is the worst drought that Kenya has experienced for a decade, and the worst humanitarian situation Somalia has experienced since 1991.
The high numbers of people affected -- more than double the number caught up in a similar food crisis in 2006, when 11 million were at risk -- underline the gravity of the situation and the urgent need for funding to prevent the crisis getting worse.
Oxfam said about 3.8 million Kenyans, a tenth of the population, are in need of emergency aid. Food prices have spiraled to 180 percent above average. Areas such as Rift Valley, which have never previously experienced a drought of this intensity, are now affected.
Conflict over rapidly diminishing resources such as water and pasture for cattle is increasing. Desperate herders are taking their cattle further to look for water and food, sparking tensions with other groups competing for the same resources. Sixty-five people have been killed in Turkana, northern Kenya since June 2009.
One in six children are acutely malnourished in Somalia, and people are trekking for days to find water in the northern regions of the country. Conflict means that people are less able to grow the food, and drought is creating hardship in areas where people have fled. Half of the population -- over 3.8 million people -- is affected.
In Ethiopia, 13.7 million people are at risk of severe hunger and need assistance. Many are selling their cattle to buy food. In northern Uganda farmers have lost half of their crops and more than two million people across the country desperately need aid.
Some 160,000 people mainly around the wild life tourist area of Ngorongoro in northeastern Tanzania are also at risk.
In Djibouti there are worrying levels of increased malnutrition and in South Sudan conflict has put 88,000 people at particular risk.
The aid response to the crisis needs to rapidly expand, but it is desperately short of funds. The World Food Programme is facing a 977-million-dollars donor shortfall for its work in the Horn of Africa over the next six months.
The government of Uganda appealed for donor money to tackle the food crisis, but has so far received only 50 percent of the funding it needs.
Rains are due in October but are likely to bring scant relief or worse still, deluges that could dramatically worsen the situation.
There are genuine fears that the region could be hit by floods as a result of the El Nino phenomenon, which could destroy crops and houses, and increase the spread of water-borne diseases.
Even with normal rain, the harvest will not arrive until early 2010. People will still need aid to get them through a long hunger season.
Oxfam staff are on the ground helping those at risk but the organisation is appealing for help from the UK public to help scale up its efforts.
The agency said it was expanding its aid effort to reach more than 750,000 people but is in desperate need for funds to do this work. Oxfam is supplying emergency clean water and access to food, and also carrying out long-term projects to strengthen people's ability to cope with future shocks.
"I visited Uganda just six years ago, and I saw then just how precious life is. It horrifies me that the people I met then are being caught up in this new catastrophe. I have seen how generous the British public can be, and how their generosity can make a huge difference to families in Africa struggling against the odds,” Helen Mirren, who is supporting the appeal, and has previously traveled to Uganda with Oxfam, said.
“We can turn things around and help these families, but we need to act now, before it is too late. Five pounds could support a family to get the food, cooking oil, and soap they need to survive for five days. It can bring a family back from the brink.”