Nearly 20 million people currently depend on food assistance in the region, and this number may increase as the hunger season progresses, particularly among marginal farmers, pastoralists and low-income urban dwellers.
The effects of El Niño, which usually brings heavy rains towards the end of the year, could make matters worse, resulting in floods and mudslides, destroying crops both in the field and in stores, increasing livestock losses and damaging infrastructure and housing.
Low purchasing power
Across Eastern Africa prices of maize, a major staple, have shown a declining trend since the beginning of the year, but remain higher than they were two years ago.
In Uganda and Kenya, for instance, prices of maize in June 2009 were almost double their level 24 months earlier. In Khartoum, Sudan, June 2009 prices of sorghum, another staple crop, were more than double their levels in June 2007. Similarly, prices in Mogadishu, Somalia, still remain higher than the pre-crisis period, despite declining since mid-2008.
Given low household purchasing power, a worsening of the overall food security situation can be expected. For pastoralists, lack of adequate pasture has worsened livestock conditions and reduced market prospects, impacting their incomes and ability to access staple foods. Moreover, reproduction rates of livestock have suffered from successive poor seasonal rains since 2007, making the recovery of the pastoral livelihood systems more difficult and worsening long-term food insecurity.
Successive poor harvests
In Uganda, production of 2009 first season crops, completed in early August, is forecast at well below average levels, representing the fourth successive poor harvest. In the Acholi region of northern Uganda, first season cereal and pulse production is estimated about 50 percent below the average. This limits households' ability to replenish food stocks and improve their food security situation following several years of displacement due to civil insecurity. More than one million people are estimated to be food insecure. This number may increase as the hunger season progresses until mid-November.
In Kenya, the poor performance of the 2009 "long rains" maize crop, combined with already depleted national cereal stocks, exports bans in neighbouring countries and persistent high cereal prices, has reduced food access. The maize crop, which accounts for 80 percent of total annual production, is estimated at 1.84 million tonnes, about 28 percent below normal levels.
Forced migrations in search of water supplies and pasture have worsened livestock conditions, increased disease outbreaks and exacerbated resource-based conflicts among pastoralists.
In Ethiopia, production of the secondary "belg" season crop is also estimated at levels well below average. Scarce rains have resulted in crop losses of up to 75 percent in some of the hardest hit areas.
With the partial failure of the "belg" season crop, the number of people in need of emergency assistance is expected to increase by 1.3 million to 6.2 million, FAO said. "Kremti" season crop prospects are also poor in Eritrea.
According to FAO's Food Security and Nutrition Analysis Unit, Somalia is facing the worst humanitarian crisis in 18 years, with approximately half the population - an estimated 3.6 million people-- in need of emergency livelihood and life-saving assistance. This includes 1.4 million rural people affected by the severe drought, about 655 000 urban poor facing high food and non-food prices, and 1.3 million internally displaced people, a result of escalating fighting and conflict.