Hunger on a massive scale is looming across the Horn of Africa as a combination of drought and high food prices has left more than 14m people in five countries in need of emergency food aid, according to the United Nations.
Ethiopia is the centre of the crisis, with 10.3m people, or 12 per cent of its population, in need of emergency aid in the next few months, the World Food Programme said. But the risk of starvation has spread in an arc that runs from Somalia and Djibouti through to Kenya and Uganda.
The primary cause of the crisis is a prolonged drought across large parts of the Horn which has been exacerbated by the soaring costs of food and fuel.
The impact is compounded because some countries, such as Ethiopia, have nearly exhausted their food reserves as rising prices forced the governments to subsidise food this year.
The strategy was to placate the urban poor and avoid food riots in the hope that global prices would fall soon enough to rebuild stocks with imports. But prices remain high and countries face poor crops without reserves.
“This is a regional crisis and the number of people affected is higher than during the 2006 regional drought when about 11m were at risk,” said Peter Smerdon, a WFP spokesman in Nairobi.
“Rising food prices mean there are more people who cannot afford food even if it is for sale in their area.”
In addition to those suffering in Ethiopia – where 5.7m people were already on food aid but needed more – there are 2.6m in need of assistance in Somalia, where drought has been compounded by conflict between the fragile government and its opponents, which is disrupting agriculture and trade.
In tiny Djibouti, 115,000 people need food aid as do 900,000 in the arid areas of northern Kenya and 707,000 in the Karamoja region of northern Uganda.
While launching an emergency appeal on Monday, Mohamed Diab, WFP country director in Ethiopia, said: “Millions of lives will be at risk if we can’t get food to them within the next two months.” The WFP estimates that it will need an additional $420m in order to meet food needs across the Horn for the rest of the year.
Grain in Ethiopia has become so scarce, the food agency said, that prices for most domestically produced cereals are now higher than for imported grains. Sonali Wickrema, WFP head of programmes in Addis Ababa, said: “This is a shock that we did not foresee.”
“Retail prices for white maize are more than 150 per cent higher compared to the same time last year and the rising cost of fuel has meant that distribution costs have gone up steeply.”
However, experts say that a famine on the scale of the one that occurred in 1984-85 remains unlikely.