Scores of Somali children are dying on the journey or within a day of arrival at refugee camps in Kenya and Ethiopia, as they flee the region's worst drought in decades, the UN refugee agency said on Wednesday.
High levels of malnutrition, combined with violence in the war-torn Horn of Africa nation, are threatening "a human tragedy of unimaginable proportions," the UNHCR warned.
After several seasons of failed rains and rising global food prices, drought has hit more than 12 million people across Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya, Djibouti and Uganda
Cattle and sheep are dying at higher rates than usual, reaching up to 60 per cent of mortality in some areas.
"Over 10 million people are affected by the drought in one way or other," said Elisabeth Byrs, spokeswoman for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
Food prices are soaring with grain prices in some parts of Kenya up to 80-per-cent higher than the five-year average, while in Ethiopia, the consumer price index jumped about 41 per cent. As a result, malnutrition rates are also rising, the UN agency said.
Eleven districts in Kenya have also reported malnutrition rates above the emergency threshold.
Hit hardest are parts of Somalia, affected not only by famine but the continuing civil war.
Thousands of Somali refugees are making perilous journeys of hundreds of kilometres to seek assistance: 54,000 people crossed into Ethiopia and Kenya in June alone. Levels of serious malnutrition among newly-arrived Somali children in Ethiopia are exceeding 50 per cent, while in Kenya levels are reaching 30 to 40 per cent.
Britain's leading 13 aid agencies have said that they face a shortfall of more than $100 million for their emergency response in the region.
Many refugees arriving in Kenya are streaming into Dadaab, the world's largest refugee camp and already overflowing before the latest crisis. Reports suggest that young children are dying as families wait to be registered.
"People are making incredibly gruelling journeys: some are walking for more than 20 days without food or water, facing attacks from armed groups or wild animals," Andrew Wander, the emergency media manager for Save the Children, said.
"We don't have anything to eat," said Sainab Yusuf Mohamed, whose child died as they were trekking across the desert in search of help. "As we were burying his body, my second child died," she said by telephone from Bardhere District in southwest Somalia.
UNHCR has described the needs for food, shelter, health services and other life-saving aid as "urgent and massive." Government representatives in the region warned that the situation could deteriorate further.
"We haven't seen the worst of this drought yet," said Mohamed Elmi, the minister for development of northern Kenya. Underscoring the severity of the crisis, Islamist militants in Somalia have lifted a two-year-long ban on foreign aid agencies.
Al-Shabaab, the al-Qaidalinked insurgency that is fighting the western-backed Transitional Federal Government, said that foreign aid agencies would be allowed access to drought victims in al-Shabaabcontrolled areas.
"We have now decided to welcome all Muslim and non-Muslim aid agencies to assist the drought-stricken Somalis in our areas," Sheik Ali Mohamud Rage, al Shabaab spokesman, told a news conference in Mogadishu late on Tuesday.
Al-Shabaab had accused aid agencies of being anti-Islamic or hosting spies, but said that organizations wanting to "assist those suffering" would now be granted access.
The United Nations says 2.8 million people in Somalia need emergency aid. In the worst-hit areas, one in three children is suffering from malnutrition.
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