At least 120 Burundians have died and thousands of others have fled to neighbouring countries due to food shortages brought on by drought prevailing in northern and eastern parts of the country, local officials have said.
"A total of 2,500 people in Ruyigi [Province] have crossed to Tanzania since December ," Moise Bucumi, the provincial governor, said on Thursday.
He said some 771 of these had settled in a refugee camp in Kigoma, a region in the west of Tanzania.
"It is difficult to determine the exact number of those who cross the border since some of them seek shelter in Tanzanian households, where they work in exchange for food," Bucumi said.
The drought-related deaths occurred in the northeastern province of Muyinga, where the governor, Feruzi Mohammed, said 2,512 residents had fled, either to other provinces in the country or to neighbouring Rwanda and Tanzania.
Mohammed said 84,093 people - representing 80 percent of Muyinga's population - were facing food shortages as crop production had drastically dropped.
"Crops that had been planted on huge tracts of land have been affected by drought before they could ripen," Mohammed said.
He said admissions to therapeutic centres were on the rise. By the end of December 2005, he said, 80 cases of malnutrition were recorded at the Muyinga therapeutic centre, including five adults suffering from the protein deficiency, kwashiorkor. He added that in mid-January, 40 cases were recorded, in addition to 128 others previously recorded.
In 16 supplementary feeding centres in Muyinga, he added, 275 admissions were recorded, bringing the total to 2,667. The drought in Muyinga has also forced 3,926 children to abandon school following physical weakness due to food shortages.
Food shortages have also been reported in other parts of Burundi. A reporter with a local radio station said that in the eastern province of Karuzi, production had significantly dropped following heavy rains that, in turn, had forced food prices to triple.
The UN World Food Programme (WFP) information officer, Isidore Nteturuye, said the departure of Burundians to neighbouring countries often occurred before crop harvests.
"A major part of the Burundians who cross to Tanzania do so in search of temporary jobs in order to earn some money [thus] allowing their families to survive in the pre-harvest period," Nteturuye said, adding that some of those leaving Burundi had relatives in neighbouring countries.
In November, a WFP programme officer, Guillaume Foliot, said Burundi had a food deficit of 334,000 tonnes in 2005.
Nteturuye said an assessment of the current situation was ongoing and a report would be issued in the coming days. He said the WFP continued to provide food aid throughout the country, and added that aid to the vulnerable population was increased whenever necessary.
Meanwhile, Burundian officials are trying to get those who have fled to return.
"The Tanzanian officials and I agreed that the 771 refugees be sent back soon to Burundi," Bucumi said.
Regarding efforts to counter food shortages in the provinces affected by drought, Bucumi said the local authorities would reclaim marshland in Ruyigi to allow farmers to cultivate it during the dry season.
In Muyinga, local government officials are gathering drought-resistant seeds and encouraging stockbreeding.
The Burundian government recently established an inter-ministerial committee to help boost aid to the people affected by food shortages.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions