updated 12/30/2005 8:29:20 AM ET 2005-12-30T13:29:20

Drought has triggered extreme food shortages in three East African countries, putting millions of people at risk of famine as the lean dry season approaches, a humanitarian group said.

Pre-famine conditions have already emerged in eastern Ethiopia, including escalating malnutrition, reports of child deaths, early human and livestock migration and rising sorghum prices, the U.S.-funded Famine Early Warning Systems Network said Thursday.

A preliminary assessment showed that more than a million Ethiopian cattle herders will face serious water, pasture and food shortages in the first half of 2006. The crisis will peak from January to March, the group said.

Drought spreads
Drought has also led to food shortages in neighboring Kenya, where an estimated 1.2 million people are expected to be affected over the next two months, said Special Programs Minister of State John Munyes. The government said it will take immediate emergency measures to deliver food to those at risk.

That’s in addition to the 1.3 million Kenyans who receive food aid annually from the government because they live in semiarid or arid areas and never harvest enough food or don’t have sizable herds of animals to sell.

In Somalia, about two million people need humanitarian aid, including food and water, medical supplies and security assistance. The drought has led to increases in admissions of severely malnourished children to feeding centers in the south.

About 70,000 tons of food aid are needed through June to feed those hit by drought in Somalia, but only 18,000 tons are available, the U.N. food aid agency said.

Eastern Ethiopia, one of the driest and least hospitable parts of the country, was hit by a catastrophic famine in 2000 that killed an estimated 50,000 people. Most residents eke out a living as nomads.

An initial estimate from the regional Disaster Preparedness and Prevention Administration indicates that Ethiopia needs more than $40 million to provide emergency water, food and health care to people and animals affected by the drought.

Strained diplomatic ties with Ethiopia
Western diplomats said Thursday that international donors will withdraw $375 million in direct budget assistance from Ethiopia’s government following its recent crackdown on the main opposition party and the independent press.

The money will be reallocated to the U.N. and aid agencies working to combat poverty among the bulk of Ethiopia’s 77 million people, the diplomats said on condition of anonymity because they did not want to strain ties with officials.

Finance Minister Sufyan Ahmed criticized the move Friday, saying the poor will still suffer because their basic services will be affected at the community level.

Ethiopia receives some $1.9 billion in aid a year — the largest recipient of foreign assistance in Africa.

Political unrest claimed the lives of at least 46 people in November. Forty-two died in June in similar protests, which began after the main opposition parties accused authorities of rigging May 15 polls that returned Prime Minister Meles Zenawi to power.

Thousands of people were detained in the subsequent crackdown, including leaders of the main opposition group, journalists and aid workers.

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