GENEVA Somalia's worst drought in a decade is pushing growing numbers of children into near-famine conditions and deepening the humanitarian crisis caused by political violence, the United Nations warned Tuesday.
Some 3.2 million Somalis are among an estimated 19 million people in the Horn of Africa in urgent need of life-saving food assistance, top U.N. aid officials said.
Drought and high local food prices have also left 12 million people in Ethiopia and another 3.5 million in Kenya short of food supplies, they said.
"We're now facing a drought in Somalia that is worse than people have seen for at least a decade," Mark Bowden, U.N. humanitarian coordinator for the country facing its fourth straight year of drought, told a news briefing in Geneva.
"Roughly 45 percent of the (Somali) population is suffering from moderate malnutrition."
In parts of central and southern Somalia, 24 percent of children under five suffer from acute malnutrition, he told the briefing.
Bowden, speaking later to Reuters, said that rate amounted to some children living in "near-famine conditions."
He said that while Somalis were not currently dying of starvation, as seen there in the early 1990s, their cattle were dying from a lack of water. "We've got more people across the board suffering and a loss of livelihoods," he said.
Some 1.1 million people in Somalia have been driven from their homes, including thousands who have fled intensified fighting since the weekend in the capital Mogadishu between Islamist militants and the government, according to Bowden.
The target for a U.N. appeal for Somalia this year has been increased to $984 million, but is only one-third funded by donors to date.
"The main message is that the appeal certainly needs to be met more rapidly in terms of being able to respond to what is a deepening crisis in Somalia," Bowden said.
John Holmes, the U.N.'s emergency humanitarian coordinator, said dwindling remittances from abroad were compounding problems faced by populations "chronically living on the margin of survival" in all three countries.
"This is not the easiest international economic context in which to be asking donors for extra resources, but we believe the seriousness of the situation does warrant that," Holmes said of the Horn of Africa.
In Ethiopia, rains were patchy, sparking fears that the harvest will be very poor, he said. However, the Ethiopian government's strategic grain reserves were in a better position than this time last year.
Kenya is reeling from a drop in tourism and lower remittances, as well as drought, according to Aeneas Chuma, U.N. resident coordinator in the country.
"The expectations are that in the next few months there will be a very serious shortage of cereals in the country," he said.
(Editing by Andrew Roche)