Three consecutive rainy seasons have failed as the region has recorded its driest conditions since 1981, the UN World Food Program said.
The drought has destroyed crops and caused “abnormally” high livestock deaths, forcing rural families who depend on herding and farming to flee their homes.
Water and grazing land are scarce and below-average rainfall forecasts in the coming months only threaten more misery, said Michael Dunford, WFP’s regional director for East Africa.
“Crops are failing, livestock are dying and famine is on the rise as recurring drought hits the Horn of Africa,” it said in a statement.
“The situation requires immediate humanitarian action” to prevent a recurrence of a crisis like the one in Somalia in 2011, when 250,000 people starved to death during a prolonged drought.
Speaking to reporters in Geneva, WFP spokesman Tomson Phiri described the scene he witnessed during a recent trip to northeast Kenya.
“While it is common to see dead cattle on the side of the road… this time, they have not been run over by passing vehicles: they died of thirst and hunger, and died in large numbers,” he said.
“The drought is widespread, severe and likely to get worse.”
Food aid is being distributed in an arid swath of Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia, where malnutrition rates are high and some 13 million people are at risk of severe hunger in the first quarter of this year.
Meanwhile, the UN children’s agency estimates that up to 20 million people in those three countries, plus Eritrea, will need food and water over the next six months.
Mohamed Fall, UNICEF regional director for Eastern and Southern Africa, said the situation was especially dire for children and families.
Almost 5.5 million children in the four countries are threatened by acute malnutrition, while 1.4 million are at risk of falling into severe acute malnutrition, which can lead to death.
“UNICEF fears that this number will increase by 50 percent if there is no rain in the next three months,” Fall told reporters in Geneva via video link.
“The needs are massive and urgent, and are rapidly outstripping the funds available to respond,” he said.
“We need to act now to prevent a catastrophe.”
According to the WFP, some 5.7 million already need food assistance in southern and southeastern Ethiopia, including half a million malnourished children and mothers.
In Somalia, the number of people classified as severely hungry is expected to rise from 3.5 million to 4.6 million in May unless urgent action is taken.
Another 2.8 million people need assistance in southeastern and northern Kenya, where a drought emergency was declared in September.
WFP said $327 million was required to respond to immediate needs over the next six months and support herding communities to become more resilient to recurring climate impacts.
Meanwhile, UNICEF is requesting $123 million to cover vital needs in Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia and Kenya through the end of June.
In 2011, the absence of rain caused the driest year since 1951 in the arid regions of Kenya, Somalia, Ethiopia, Djibouti and Uganda.
Experts say extreme weather events are happening with greater frequency and intensity due to climate change, with Africa, which contributes the least to global warming, bearing the brunt.
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