Eastern Africa is experiencing what has been described as the "most severe food crisis in the world today", with at least 10 million people affected in Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia and Uganda, according to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA).
Somalia is one of the hardest-hit countries in the region, with deaths reported in some areas amid alarming malnutrition levels.
"We are no longer on the verge of a humanitarian disaster; we are in the middle of it now. It is happening and no one is helping," Isaq Ahmed, the chairman of the Mubarak Relief and Development Organization (MURDO), a local NGO working in the Lower Shabelle region of Somalia, told IRIN on 28 June.
He said: "In the three districts of Qoryoley, Kurtunwarey and Sablale [in Lower Shabelle] our estimate is that some 5,000 families [30,000 people] have been seriously affected by the current drought."
Ahmed said those who can are seeking survival in Mogadishu.
"Those remaining in the area are the ones who cannot even afford transport to Mogadishu," he said, adding that a number of people had died due to a combination of hunger and related diseases.
"Most of those who died were children, the elderly, and lactating and pregnant mothers," he said.
Up to eight people a day were being buried in Lower Shabelle, according to Sultan Sayidali Hassanow Aliyow Ibirow, a senior traditional elder in Lower Shabelle. Most of them were cattle herders who had lost everything.
"Three years of little or no rain have led to this disaster. People have not recovered from their previous losses and now we have an even worse drought," he said.
Driest season since 1950
In many pastoral zones, this is the driest season on record since 1950, according to OCHA.
Drought conditions in Somalia have had regional implications, with refugees flowing into Kenya, Ethiopia and Djibouti.
An aid worker in Mogadishu, who preferred anonymity, told IRIN the number of people from the Bay, Bakol and Lower Shabelle regions coming into displaced persons camps in the Afgooye corridor has been increasing in recent months. "I would not say it is a flood yet but it is a steady stream and they are coming every single day."
According to Save the Children, children arriving from Somalia in the Dadaab refugee camp in northern Kenya are exhausted, malnourished and severely dehydrated.
"Nearly every child or parent we have spoken to says they are not just fleeing fighting in Somalia - the drought and food crisis are equally perilous to them now,” said Catherine Fitzgibbon, Save the Children's Kenya programme director.
Experts are warning that the situation could get worse in the short term if the delayed and poor rains cause the current crop to fail.
In Ethiopia, the estimated number of people in need of emergency food and non-food assistance was revised upwards from 2.8 million to 3.2 million. Nearly two thirds of the requirements were in the southern Somali and Oromia regions as well as in the Southern Nations, Nationalities and People’s Region, where shortages of water and food were recorded. Cereal prices there have continued to rise, with inflation rates close to 30 percent recorded in April.
According to the Food Security and Nutrition Working Group, a regional forum, the rate of Somali refugees arriving in southern Ethiopia has jumped from 5,000 per month to more than 30,000 in the second week of June. Among new arrivals to the two camps in the Dolo Ado area, the Global Acute Malnutrition (GAM) rate is 45 percent, way beyond the 15 percent emergency threshold set by the World Health Organization.
In Djibouti, poor rains from March to May of this year hurt pastoral household food security and sent food prices shooting up. The average price of wheat flour increased by 17 percent between January and February 2011, to US$620 per ton, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s Global Information and Early Warning System, GIEWS.
In Kenya, rising inflation rates have also adversely affected poor households’ ability to buy food. Prices of the main staple, maize, have tripled from about 1,300 shillings (US$14.4) in January to 4,500 ($50) for a 90kg bag.
Recently, the government announced the removal of tax on imported maize in a bid to cushion consumers. But millers say rising global maize prices mean the measure will have little impact on the commodity's prices locally.
"The problem has been compounded by the fact that the Kenyan shilling has been on a free-fall, trading at an all-time low [about 90 shillings to the US dollar] not experienced in the country for almost two decades. I do not see the cost of maize dropping any time soon," said a miller who requested anonymity.
The recent March to May “long rains” in Kenya were poor for the second or third successive season in most rangelands and cropping lowlands, with many of these areas receiving 10-50 percent of normal rains, noted the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWSNET).
The consequences include declining water and pasture, and subsequent livestock deaths. In the predominantly pastoralist north, a low milk supply has contributed to malnutrition levels soaring above 35 percent. The GAM rate in northwestern Turkana has hit 37.4 percent, the highest ever in the district.
Nationally, at least 3.2 million people are currently food insecure - up from a projection of 2.4 and 1.6 million in April and January, respectively.
Even in Kenya’s coastal region, thousands are food insecure, says the Kenya Red Cross Society’s (KRCS) region manager, Gerald Bombe.
“There is a need to import maize and distribute food and water to the hardest hit areas,” added Kevin Lunani, a local leader in the coastal Kisauni region.