Up to seven million people in Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia are affected by the drought, with the situation in the latter particularly severe because of ongoing lawlessness in the country, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said on Wednesday.

"The crisis that we are witnessing cannot be expected to end until July," said Jacques de Maio, the Geneva-based ICRC's head of operations for the Horn of Africa region.

"The places where this is occurring would be a challenge to any government on earth."

Relief aid

In a news release issued on Wednesday, the ICRC said it was stepping up its emergency operation to assist more than half a million people in areas affected by the drought and armed violence in Somalia and Ethiopia over the next five months.

ICRC will step up its emergency
operation to feed the starving

In co-ordination with other humanitarian organisations and in partnership with the Somali Red Crescent, the ICRC is focusing its assistance activities on southern Somalia where the drought has hit hardest, the ICRC said.

It added: "This week the organisation has started distributing food to 48,000 people in Bakool and to 54,000 in the Gedo and Bay regions.

"This help will continue until the next harvest in July, although the success of the crop will depend on the results of the rainy season due to begin in April."

The UN says more than 11.5 million people will require food assistance in the next six months.

Somalia

In its latest report on Somalia, the UN said that 1.7 million people - 710,000 of them experiencing an acute food shortage - needed food assistance of some kind in addition to the 410,000 refugees who depend on food aid.

Up to 80% of cattle are expected
to die in some areas

The crisis could last beyond July if the region's rainy season, starting in March or April, fails to deliver enough water to help the harvest, the ICRC said.

Somalia has been without an effective central government since 1991, when regional commanders overthrew the government and divided the country into rival, clan-based fiefdoms.

"The drought is making an already dire situation worse for the majority of people in southern Somalia," said Pascal Hundt, the ICRC Somalia delegation chief.

"This country is facing, for the last 15 years, a violent and protracted conflict."

Two million Somalis are currently affected by drought, out of a total population of up to 12 million.

"If there is no rapid, effective response to this crisis now, and if there is no rain in April, the situation is going to get worse, and people will start getting hungry - and will start dying," Hundt also said.

Balance tipped 

Up to 80% of cattle are expected to die in some areas in the south of the country, severely limiting people's food sources and purchasing power, as they will be unable to sell livestock to buy cereals, Hundt said.

"This will depend a lot on the outcome of the next rainy season," he added.

The drought has tipped the balance in many highly impoverished border areas where Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya meet - the centre of the drought where there is little central government control or supervision of border crossings.

The Red Cross said it would concentrate on distributing food to more than 102,000 people in southern Somalia. In Ethiopia, the agency plans to assist more than 300,000 people.