ROME, April 3 (Reuters) - Nearly 16 million people need emergency food aid in drought-stricken east Africa and the threat of starvation is severe in some areas, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation said on Monday.
It said the number of people needing assistance could increase, as crop weather forecasts were discouraging.
The Rome-based FAO said pastoral areas of southeastern Ethiopia, northern Kenya and several parts of Somalia were experiencing grave food shortages due to successive years of poor rains.
"The threat of starvation is severe in parts of eastern Africa with nearly 16 million people in need of emergency food assistance," it said in a report entitled "Food Supply Situation and Crop Prospects in Sub-Saharan Africa".
Hardest hit is Ethiopia, where more than eight million people are at risk of famine this year, while in Kenya nearly 2.7 million people are facing severe food shortages, FAO said.
DISCOURAGING WEATHER FORECASTS
In Ethiopia, prospects for secondary "Belg" season crops to be harvested from June were unfavourable due to the continuing drought, the report said.
"It's not promising," Shukri Ahmed, a FAO economist who follows East Africa closely, told Reuters.
"The rains have come late, particularly in Ethiopia. Even now, the rain is very limited," he said.
The Belg crop accounts for around eight to 10 percent of annual cereal and pulse production, but in some of the northern parts of the country it provides a significant part of annual grain production.
The failure of last year's Belg season has put severe pressure on the food supply situation of a large number of people and was exacerbated by the continued drought through the main agricultural season in 1999, the FAO said.
"With poor rainfall forecast for the sub-region during the current season, the number of people in need of assistance is anticipated to increase," the report said.
MASSIVE INTERNATIONAL AID NEEDED, REPORT SAYS
"Only a massive international effort in the coming months in support of the affected populations can avert further human suffering and loss of life," it added.
As well as drought, civil conflicts in parts of east Africa were disrupting food production and distribution, triggering food shortages and mass population displacements, FAO said.
Ahmed said the border war between Ethiopia and Eritrea had prevented farmers from tilling their land.
The United States says it will donate 400,000 tonnes of aid to Ethiopia, but aid officials have complained of a poor response from other countries to a U.N. appeal for $190 million for Ethiopia this year.
The head of the U.N.'s World Food Programme, Catherine Bertini, will travel to the region later this month to plan famine relief measures, consulting closely with FAO.
Elsewhere in Africa, food supplies remained bleak in the Great Lakes region due to the combined effects of civil strife, insecurity and erratic rainfall, FAO said.
In Burundi, food supplies were tight after a reduced harvest last season due to dry weather and population displacement.
"The food and health situation is particularly critical for some 800,000 displaced people in camps, most of whom do not have access to their fields," FAO said.
- Reuters - Thomson Reuters Foundation
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