The Horn of Africa is in the grip of a major food crisis, which has affected millions of people in drought-stricken areas of Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia and Djibouti since April 2011.
The worst-hit country is Somalia, where tens of thousands of people have died. The United Nations declared a famine there in July 2011.
The food crisis developed because the impacts of severe drought in the region were exacerbated by extremely high food prices and a limited humanitarian response, the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWSNET) said.
Livestock, on which pastoralist communities depend, died from a lack of grazing land and water.
Donors were strongly criticised for ;not responding quickly enough to the crisis. Despite early warnings in late 2010 and a U.N. appeal in November that year, humanitarian funding was only drastically increased in June and July 2011 after the annual May rains had failed, a report by Oxfam and Save the Children said.
Aid agencies massively scaled up their response and this, combined with a particularly good harvest in early 2012, reduced death rates in Somalia, the United Nations said.
In February 2012 the United Nations said that areas previously at famine levels had improved to what aid agencies call "emergency level food insecurity", one level below famine. But more than 2.3 million Somalis – almost a third of the population - are in need of food aid. About 70 percent of them are in the south where humanitarian access is limited.
Many of the worst-hit areas are controlled by al Shabaab Islamist militants, who have banned more than a dozen aid agencies.
In January 2012, the International Committee of the Red Cross, one of the few international aid groups delivering aid to areas under rebel control, suspended food distribution to 1.1 million people after al Shabaab blocked deliveries to areas under its control. Later that month, al Shabaab banned the organisation, accusing it of distributing out-of-date food.
Many people are likely to remain in crisis until the main August 2012 harvest, and the number is likely to increase from May when food stocks from the January harvest run out, the Food Security and Nutrition Analysis Unit-Somalia (FSNAU) said.
The agency warned that any additional shocks, such as increased restrictions on aid agencies, poor rainfall, more displacement, disease or the large-scale return of refugees from Kenya and Ethiopia, will worsen hunger levels.
Many people have fled the drought and fighting between the rebels and pro-government forces. In the capital Mogadishu, more than 180,000 people have sought shelter. Some of them say security at displacement camps is poor and women are vulnerable to rape. Others have accused local aid workers working for international and Somali NGOs of taking aid to line their own pockets.
Tens of thousands of Somalis have also trekked to camps across the Kenyan and Ethiopian borders. ;In mid-October about 3,400 people per week were arriving in Kenya alone, a FEWSNET report said.
In Kenya, food shortages also reached critical levels and the government declared a national emergency and promised to increase cereal imports. In November 2011, an estimated 3.75 million people still needed aid, according to FEWSNET. Hunger experts said pastoralists in the north and northeast were particularly vulnerable to food shortages.
In the past six years alone, the region has experienced two other hunger crises. In 2006, around 11 million people were hit hard by drought, and in 2008-2009, the number affected topped 20 million.
In 1984-5, famine, drought and conflict in Ethiopia killed nearly 1 million people.
To find out more:
United Nations updates on Horn of Africa crisis - U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
Map of Somalia hunger Feb 2012 (see p.2) - Famine Early Warning Systems Network
A dangerous delay: The cost of late response to early warnings in the 2011 drought in the Horn of Africa – Oxfam/Save the Children
International definition of famine - Integrated Food Security Phase Classification
What creates food crises? - AlertNet
Food emergencies and responses - AlertNet
Stats and facts about hunger - AlertNet