The number of people requiring humanitarian assistance in the Horn of Africa could increase sharply in coming months due to below-average rainfall and high food and fuel prices, say aid workers.
Moreover, funding shortfalls, drought and conflict could further increase the number of people needing humanitarian aid in the region from an estimated 8.75 million people.
Peter Smerdon, spokesman for the UN World Food Programme (WFP) in Kenya, told IRIN on 18 May: "The total number of people in need of humanitarian assistance in the Horn is 8.75 million; some of them get food aid from governments and other aid organizations. At least six million people need food assistance from WFP but this number could increase if the current rains are poor or below average."
According to Smerdon, by early May, about halfway through the rainy season, rainfall was well below average in most of the Horn, ranging from 5 to 50 percent of normal rates, and well below forecasts.
Of particular concern, he said, were areas of southern and southeastern Ethiopia.
"Amid growing concern about the impact of drought in the southern and southeastern pastoralist areas, many of WFP's food assistance activities in Ethiopia face significant funding shortfalls," Smerdon said.
The agency said it was assisting 4.3 million people in Ethiopia.
In Somalia, WFP faces a 70 percent shortfall from May through October and urgently needs contributions of US$53 million to feed one million people in accessible areas for the next six months.
In Kenya, Smerdon said, WFP has a 50 percent funding shortfall of $47 million needed to provide food aid for the next six months to 1.7 million people.
In an April food security report Kenya's Agriculture Ministry said the national stock of maize - the country's staple - is expected to be about 5.9 million 90kg bags by the end of July, adequately covering only 1.7 months beginning in August.
The April–September 2011 Food Security Outlook by the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS Net) forecast that most households in the hard-hit pastoral areas would become extremely food insecure and many more livestock would die.
According to WFP, the Horn of Africa drought, which began with the failure of the short rains in December 2010, is the first since a two-year regional drought in 2007-2009 that saw the number of people needing humanitarian assistance in the region rise to more than 20 million.
Conflict could further increase the number of people requiring help. In early May, dozens of people were killed and others displaced when violence broke out on the Ethiopia-Kenya border between two communities over rising food prices.
The fighting between the Turkana community of Kenya and the Merille of Ethiopia, local media reported, reflected a broader pattern of inter-ethnic conflict resulting from food scarcity and persistent drought.
On 15 May, international NGO CARE called for more attention to severe food insecurity in Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia, saying almost eight million people in these countries needed emergency aid.
"Chronic vulnerability, poverty, social injustice and climate change are all responsible for recurring food insecurity in the Horn of Africa," Mohamed Khaled, CARE's regional emergency coordinator for East Africa, said in a statement. "On top of that, a significant increase in food and fuel prices has worsened the current situation.
"In Kenya, for example, the price of maize, a staple food, has increased over 27 percent during the last three months. Sufficient attention is needed now to prevent further loss of lives and livelihoods. At the same time, the underlying reasons need to be tackled to break the recurring cycles that have persisted in recent years."
Djibouti and Somalia have declared the drought situation a national disaster while the Ethiopian government revised its humanitarian requirements document in April 2011 to reflect the growing needs and mobilize a scale-up of humanitarian response.
Khaled said: "While governments of the affected countries have already started interventions, short- and long-term international assistance is needed to help address critical needs but also underlying structural causes and chronic vulnerabilities. What is needed is a set of interventions which strengthens people’s own resilience capacity and coping mechanisms to survive such severe conditions while at the same time responding to their current humanitarian needs and protecting their livelihoods. It is crucial that people can feed themselves through their own means instead of being dependent on food distributions."
Somalia's situation is dire as conflict continues. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization's Food Security, Nutrition and Analysis Unit (FSNAU), some 2.4 million Somalis are in food crisis, representing 32 percent of the population.
The effects of the ongoing drought, deteriorating purchasing power, rampant conflict and limited humanitarian space continue to aggravate the situation in most parts of the country, FSNAU said in an April update.
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