NAIROBI (Xinhua) -- An estimated 9 million people across the Horn of Africa are facing a severe food crisis following a prolonged drought in the region, the United Nations World Food Program (WFP) said.
According to WFP Executive Director Josette Sheeran, drought conditions in Somalia, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Kenya and parts of Uganda has left children and women in need of humanitarian assistance.
"Around nine million people, many of them women and children, now require humanitarian assistance across Somalia, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Kenya and parts of Uganda," Sheeran said in a statement received in Nairobi.
The UN agency said it is aiming to feed more than 6 million of the most vulnerable, but resources are thin and at the very moment "we should be ramping up operations, we have been scaling back some programmes in Ethiopia and Somalia."
WFP said the delivery of emergency food assistance is a vital part of the Horn of Africa Action Plan the humanitarian community developed in 2010 to strengthen the resilience of communities caught up in this creeping disaster, and to protect assets such as farming tools, and livestock that help them to produce food.
"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," Sheeran said.
"While we work tirelessly to protect the smallholder farmers and pastoralists of the Horn of Africa region, we must also respond to the needs of those who already face a graver plight."
The WFP chief said conflict in Somalia continues to force civilians from their homes, and around 10,000 are arriving each week at crowded Kenyan refugee camps.
The number of malnourished children receiving supplementary or therapeutic feeding in the camps has already tripled in 2011, a clear sign of the seriousness of the problem and the need for swift international action across the whole region.
"A slowly evolving regional hunger crisis may not have the immediate impact of a mega-emergency like the Haitian earthquake, or Pakistan floods, but the drought and rising malnutrition in the Horn affects more people and its effects are equally devastating," Sheeran said.
In its update issued late on Tuesday, the UN humanitarian agency Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said about 10 million people across the Horn of Africa are facing a severe food crisis due to severe drought, with child malnutrition rates in some areas twice the emergency threshold amid high food prices that have left families desperate, the UN reported Wednesday.
OCHA said almost half the of children arriving in refugees camps in Ethiopia from southern Somalia are malnourished, while 11 districts in Kenya have reported malnutrition rates above the 15 percent emergency threshold.
Supplementary and therapeutic feeding programmes are struggling to keep pace with the rising needs, according to OCHA.
Drought-related displacement and refugee flows are on the rise, with an average of 15,000 Somalis arriving in Kenya and Ethiopia every month this year seeking assistance.
"While conflict has been a fact of life for them for years, it is the drought that has taken them to breaking point.
"Many have walked for days, are exhausted, in poor health, desperate for food and water, and arriving in a worse condition than usual," according to the OCHA update on the drought situation in the region.
The influx of Somalis into refugee camps in the Dadaab area of Kenya’s North-Eastern province, the largest refugee settlement in the world, has led to worsening overcrowding amid limited resources.
The drought has forced children out of school as both human and livestock diseases spread. Competition for the meagre resources is causing tensions among communities.
The price of grain in drought-affected areas of Kenya is 30 to 80 percent more than the five-year average, according to OCHA, while in Ethiopia, the consumer price index for food increased by almost 41 percent last month.
Further food price hikes area expected in Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda and Somalia, but could ease after the next harvests expected later this year.
OCHA called for the scaling up of the emergency response in all affected areas, urging governments, donors and relief agencies to step up efforts to prevent further deterioration.
Further funding is also required to enable humanitarian agencies to provide the necessary assistance.
The UN agencies’ comments come on the heels of a warning by the charity "Save the Children" that Kenya’s biggest refugee camp at Dadaab is becoming overwhelmed by refugees, some of whom have trekked for hundreds of miles to reach aid.
Around 20,000 have arrived at the Dadaab camp in the last two weeks, many having trekked for more than a month across parched areas of Somalia, Ethiopia and eastern and northern areas of Kenya itself.
"We are seeing around 1,300 people arriving in Dadaab every day, some in incredibly dire situations," said Director of Save the Children’s Kenya programme, Catherine Fitzgibbon.
Dadaab is the world’s largest refugee camp.
It was built to house 90,000 people but already having to cope with four times that number. It has become the third largest settlement in the country and is beginning to struggle to cope.