NAIROBI (AFP) - From southern Ethiopia to northern Kenya and Somalia, swathes of land across the Horn of Africa are being ravaged by a drought that has put 20 million people at risk of starvation.
A donor conference last week raised almost US$1.4 billion (S$1.94 billion) for the region, which the UN says is facing its worst drought in 40 years.
In the afflicted areas, people eke out a living mainly from herding and subsistence farming.
They are experiencing their fourth consecutive poor rainy season since the end of 2020 - a situation exacerbated by a locust invasion that wiped out crops between 2019 and 2021.
"The number of hungry people due to drought could spiral from the currently estimated 14 million to 20 million through 2022," the UN's World Food Programme (WFP) said last month.
Six million Somalis - 40 per cent of the population - are facing extreme levels of food insecurity and there is "a very real risk of famine in the coming months" if current conditions prevail, the UN humanitarian response agency OCHA said last week.
Another 6.5 million people in Ethiopia are "acutely food insecure", it said, as well as 3.5 million in Kenya.
Across the region, one million people have been driven from their homes by a lack of water and pasture, and least three million head of livestock have perished, OCHA said.
"We must act now... if we want to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe," the Food and Agriculture Organization's representative to the African Union, Chimimba David Phiri, said at a UN briefing in Geneva in April.
Experts say extreme weather events are happening with increased frequency and intensity due to climate change.
Dire conditions in the Horn of Africa have been amplified by the war in Ukraine, which has contributed to soaring food and fuel costs, disrupted global supply chains and diverted aid money away from the region.
Children in need
Unicef executive director Catherine Russell said 10 million children in Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia were in need of urgent life-saving support because of the crisis.
"Overall 1.7 million children are severely malnourished across the sub-region," she said in a statement after a four-day visit to Ethiopia last week.
Russell said a lack of clean water was increasing the risk of disease among children, while hundreds of thousands had dropped out of school, many having to travel long distances in search of food and water.
East Africa endured a harrowing drought in 2017 but early humanitarian action averted a famine in Somalia.
But in 2011, 260,000 people - half of them children under the age of six - died of hunger in the troubled country, partly because the international community did not act fast enough, according to the UN.
Beyond the direct and potentially deadly consequences on the people affected, the shortage of water and grazing land is a source of inter-communal conflict, particularly among herders.
The drought also threatens the animal world. Livestock such as cattle - an essential source of subsistence in the region - are dying en masse.
Wildlife is also at risk. In Kenya, there have been many cases of wild animals such as giraffes or antelopes perishing for lack of water and food, their carcasses rotting on barren scrubland.
In drought conditions, wild animals will leave their usual habitat for water or food, often straying closer to developed areas.
In central Kenya, big cats have attacked herds of livestock, while elephants or buffaloes have taken to grazing in farmland, angering the local inhabitants.