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NAIROBI - In the run up to the African Union summit in Khartoum this month, the United Nations World Food Programme today warned that a humanitarian catastrophe would engulf the drought-stricken Horn of Africa unless WFP receives urgent donations to provide emergency food aid for an estimated 5.4 million people.

In collaboration with governments and other partners, WFP has raised the alarm in recent months about the worsening impact of drought, especially on pastoral and agro-pastoral communities in the Horn of Africa. Pending the results of current assessments, the estimated numbers of people hit by drought are: 2.5 million in Kenya, 1.4 million in Somalia, 1.5 million in Ethiopia and 60,000 in Djibouti.

Children's health and nutrition are deteriorating because many of them are eating just one meal each day and the livestock that many families depend on for food are dying in large numbers from exhaustion and lack of water and food. In arid northeastern Kenya, women and small children are begging at roadsides for drinking water and food from motorists.

"In all four countries, it is clear that WFP will have to expand its existing operations to drought-affected populations in order to address the increasing needs. While final figures on the number of people in need of urgent assistance are still being established, donors must respond now if we are going to avert a humanitarian catastrophe," said Holdbrook Arthur, WFP Regional Director for Eastern and Central Africa.

In mid-2005, concerns over the deteriorating food security situation in the region led WFP to undertake, in partnership with other concerned stakeholders, a comprehensive review of the food situation among pastoralists and agro-pastoralists in the Greater Horn of Africa.

As a result, WFP is establishing a long term, well-coordinated and integrated early warning system and aims to enhance coping strategies and diversify income generation and livelihood activities, as well as strengthen governance, to support pastoralist communities.

"The emergency we face in the Horn today is the result of successive seasons of failed rains. Consequently, pastoralists living in these arid, remote lands have very few survival strategies left and desperately require our assistance to make it through until the next rains," said Arthur, speaking in the Ugandan capital of Kampala.

In Kenya, more than 2.5 million people will require assistance in 2006 according to a joint alert released on 19 December 2005 by the government, WFP and the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS). This represents a dramatic increase from the previous 1.1 million people being assisted by WFP and will require an extra 236,000 metric tons of food valued at US$140 million.

Ongoing field assessments by WFP and its partners in 27 of the most-affected districts in north and east Kenya will determine the exact areas and number of people in need.

"There are indications that the number of people in need in Kenya because of drought could rise as the year progresses. This is of grave concern, especially as WFP's current emergency operation is inadequately funded, and without additional contributions, we could be forced to halt our much-needed food assistance in February," said Arthur.

In southern regions of Somalia, the situation is deteriorating with an estimated 1.4 million people in urgent need of assistance because of poor deyr rains in October and November. Somalia is headed for the worst cereal harvest in a decade and pastoralists in the south are forced to concentrate along rivers and in the few remaining green pastures.

WFP plans to feed one million people in Somalia through June 2006, while the non-governmental organization CARE will assist the remaining 400,000. However, WFP's food stocks are already low and it needs an additional 59,000 tons at a cost of some US$46 million to ensure that it can provide much-needed food to the most vulnerable.

To compound the already grave situation in southern Somalia, piracy has hampered WFP's efforts to provide food aid. In 2005, two ships carrying relief food were hijacked, forcing WFP to find alternative delivery routes. WFP now uses road transport through northern Kenya as well as Djibouti - both of which are more expensive and slower.

In Djibouti, WFP currently assists more than 47,000 pastoralists. With the worsening drought in this smallest of the Horn of Africa countries, it is feared that this number will increase in the coming months to more than 60,000 people.

In Ethiopia, initial findings of pastoral assessments of the main rain season indicate that approximately 1.5 million pastoralists in the southern Somali region and perhaps an estimated 250,000 in the Borena zone of the Oromiya region will require food assistance from January-June 2006. This is on top of some 5.5 million people already being assisted by WFP through its various operations in Ethiopia.

WFP's in-country contingency and carry-over stocks of 165,000 tons of food in Ethiopia and generous new contributions for 2006 will be used to cover the needs of these people. In 2005, WFP gave food to more than a million people in the drought-prone Somali region.