Years of drought and conflict leave millions in east Africa on brink of famine

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East Africa is on the brink of famine after years of drought and conflict that has left 16 million people facing the threat of starvation, aid experts fear.

As politicians and officials from the United Nations gather in London to discuss security reforms in Somalia and the growing humanitarian crisis, the wider region teeters on the edge of a disaster the world has not seen for six years.

Famine has already gripped South Sudan, with hunger killing many there and in Somalia.

And with a national emergency declared in Kenya and fears of a new wave of drought in Ethiopia, there is a race against time to stop famine spreading.

Aid agencies say the threat of starvation is unprecedented, with millions at risk and a very real concern that tens - perhaps hundreds - of thousands could die.

Saleh Saeed, chief executive of the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC), an umbrella group of British charities, believes it is "touch and go" whether Somalia falls into famine.

He told the Press Association: "There are 2.9 million people in Somalia who are food insecure and 6.2 million people, half the population, are in urgent need of humanitarian assistance.

"These are people who do not know where their next meal is coming from. That 2.9 million is part of 16 million who are food insecure across the east Africa region, so the situation is touch and go at the moment."

Famine was declared in parts of South Sudan in February.

Before that, the last time there was famine anywhere in the world was in Somalia in 2011, when 260,000 people died, mostly women and children.

Mr Saeed believes the two areas most at risk are South Sudan and Somalia, where a huge humanitarian effort has been mobilised to distribute food, water and medical supplies.

He said: "When you start to see tens of thousands, if not millions of people, affected by famine, where parents can't afford to buy food for themselves, let alone their children, then we're ultimately talking about people losing their lives in a situation that doesn't need to happen."

The crisis has largely been caused by prolonged drought.

Somalia has had less than half its normal rainfall for almost three years.

Prolonged dry periods have killed crops and livestock, forcing half a million people to leave their homes and roam the country in search of food and water, often ending up in shanty towns in the cities.

Charities, many funded by British taxpayers, are stepping in to help.

In Somaliland, a self-governed independent state north of Somalia, Action Aid is working to reach almost 15,000 of the most vulnerable people in some of the worst affected regions.

In the village of Gumar, not far from the border with Ethiopia, Action Aid workers distribute food parcels to people that will last them a month or more.

For many, the aid deliveries are the difference between life and death.

Amina Hassan has had no food for months other than what is brought in after her cow and donkey died.

Now wholly reliant on aid to feed herself and her eight children, she said: "Without the food, Allah knows what we will eat and where the food comes from.

"If aid stops, I can't imagine how difficult it will be. But god knows our destiny."

The DEC East Africa Crisis Appeal has raised more than £55 million since it was launched in March, including £10 million from the Government, with £9.5 million already allocated to projects in Somalia, Somaliland and another autonomous state, Puntland.

Lessons have been learned since the 2011 famine and Mr Saeed is hopeful the worst of the devastation can be avoided.

He said: "Globally, I think we are (mobilising help) sooner than we did before, and it's really now a race against time to see if the international community has actually done enough and is doing enough to avert the kind of deaths that we saw in 2011."

:: To help the DEC East Africa Crisis Appeal, visit www.dec.org.uk or call 0370 60 60 610; to support Action Aid, go to www.actionaid.org.uk.