ROME, ITALY — The number of people facing severe food shortages is set to increase as the impact of drought, along with high food and fuel prices, continues to grip the Horn of Africa region, the United Nation’s Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) warned on June 14.

High levels of acute malnutrition are widespread and more than 8 million people in Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia are in need of emergency assistance.

The region has now experienced two consecutive seasons of significantly below-average rainfall, resulting in failed crop production, depletion of grazing resources and significant livestock mortality.

"The current crisis is not an unusual or chance event, but rather a chronic feature of the region. The challenge ahead is to empower farmers and pastoralists to adapt to the new realities of high variability of weather patterns and more frequent extreme weather events," said Rod Charters, regional emergency coordinator for Eastern and Central Africa.

"Together with our partners of the Regional Food Security and Nutrition Working Group we have been preparing for this drought scenario since the failure of last year's short rains. FAO issued various alerts and has been supporting countries' preparedness plans in the Region."

In Somalia, malnutrition rates are amongst the worst in the world, with one in four children in southern Somalia acutely malnourished. The drought is affecting most parts of the country, leading to livestock deaths and sky-rocketing food prices which make it increasingly difficult for poor families to feed themselves.

Currently, 2.5 million people — one in three Somalis — are in need of humanitarian assistance but with the ongoing conflict in the South, coupled with the poor outlook for the upcoming harvest, many more Somalis may fall into severe crisis.

In Kenya, more than 2.4 million people in the pastoralist and agropastoralist areas of northern and northeastern regions are estimated to be unable to meet their basic food and water needs. The food security situation is expected to further deteriorate as milk production in the drought-affected areas has collapsed and will not recover until October when the short rains are expected to start.

Furthermore, distances to water have doubled to 30 to 40 kms in many areas and conflicts have occurred over grazing resources, leading to loss of human lives and livestock, along with constrained market access. Emergency interventions are urgently required to mitigate the impact and protect further livelihood and nutritional deterioration.

In Ethiopia, a La Niña episode has resulted in the failure of two consecutive seasons of rain, water shortages, very poor pasture and marked deterioration in livestock conditions resulting in much reduced livestock prices in south and southeastern lowlands. In Borena Zone, on the southern border with Kenya, 220,000 cattle deaths have been reported.

Additionally, the drought has also affected the 2011 "belg" cropping season to be harvested in June/July, which is expected to be very poor in the Oromia, Tigray, Ahmara and SNNP (Southern Nations, Nationalities, and Peoples) regions.

At the beginning of June the number of people requiring assistance in Ethiopia was estimated at 11.4 million. This includes 3.2 million people in need of emergency assistance and the 8.2 million people registered under the productive safety net program.

In Djibouti, the ongoing drought coupled with very high staple food prices, high unemployment and increased rural-urban migration has worsened the food security situation at the household level. Water shortages in Djibouti City are also expected to become a serious issue over the coming months as the peak demand for water approaches.

Very high food and fuel prices are adding to the difficulties of poor households in accessing food across the region. Record prices have been registered in some retail markets of Somalia such as Mogadishu and Marka where April prices of red sorghum were between 150% to 180% higher than 12 months ago.

A similar situation is reported in Kenya, where wholesale maize prices in May in main urban markets of Nairobi and Mombasa were between 60% and 85% above the levels of May 2010.

Also in Ethiopia, where markets were recording relatively low price levels until the beginning of 2011 following the good 2010 main season production, there has been a sharp increase in cereal prices since February and maize prices have jumped between 60% and 120% from March to May.

The Horn of Africa requires urgent additional funds to protect and rebuild livestock assets, distribute suitable farm inputs that include drought-tolerant seeds, fodder and water for breeding stocks, as well as animal and plant disease surveillance and control.

In the short and medium term, training farmers on improved dryland crops production technologies needs to continue, along with improving water management practices and building the capacity of the communities to better respond to disasters.

Throughout the region, FAO has been supporting local populations and governments with interventions to rehabilitate water structures, with distribution of seeds, tools and other agricultural inputs, and with animal health and production activities.

In partnership with government institutions, NGOs and other UN agencies, FAO is now coordinating ongoing drought-related interventions at the regional, national and community levels.

FAO is also working to limit the impact of climate variability on pastoral populations through systematic data gathering, identifying gaps in interventions and developing strategies to ensure affected communities are better prepared for disaster.