UN warns of drought in Horn of Africa similar to 1980s crisis

The United Nations is warning that as many as 16 million people are at risk from the drought in northeastern Africa, where a devastating famine 15 years ago left nearly 1 million people dead.

As in the mid-1980s, Ethiopia again is most in danger, facing a severe food crisis because of poor and infrequent rains and continued fighting with neighboring Eritrea, said Carolyn McAskie, deputy U.N. emergency relief coordinator.

But six other countries in the greater Horn of Africa region have also lost food stocks to the drought, fighting and continued instability from refugee flows, including Eritrea, Somalia, Sudan, Kenya, Uganda and Djibouti, she told a press conference on Thursday.

In a bid to draw public attention to the crisis and mobilize the necessary relief operation, Secretary-General Kofi Annan has asked the head of the World Food Program, Catherine Bertini, to be his special envoy and to travel to the region in mid-April, McAskie announced.

"We are facing the real prospect in two months from now of another catastrophe which can be averted with the right kind of donor assistance," McAskie said.

The Unitsistance to the 12.4 million people at risk of famine in the seven most-affected countries.

But U.N. officials estimate that the crisis may eventually affect a total of 16 million people, including people in Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi, requiring 940,000 metric tons of food aid.

Ethiopia by far is the worst affected and will account for 80 percent of the aid requirement, McAskie said.

During a drought in 1984-85, nearly 1 million people were estimated to have died of starvation or related illness in Ethiopia. The images of emaciated Ethiopians in the West prompted an enormous relief effort.

"Without increased donor support for immediate food relief assistance, the international community may be confronted with the sort of food crisis the region tragically had to deal with 15 years ago," a U.N. statement said.

"It is urgent that pre-emptive measures are now taken to avert such a catastrophe."

The United Nations has issued a special appeal for food aid alone for Ethiopia of dlrs 190 million, half of which has been met. But there has been no response to the U.N. appeal for Eritrea, McAskie said.

"It's pretty obvious that the response that will be needed will be prolonged food aid relief over next few months," McAskie said, adding that the United Nations wouldn't know until the autumn whether the next planting season would succeed.

The magnitude of the problem may well increase since prospects for the rains expected in May and June are uncertain.

Bertini plans to travel to the region beginning April 11, visiting Ethiopia, Djibouti, Eritrea and Kenya to try to raise awareness about the situation and press governments to give aid workers secure access to the needy.

Aid workers have often been prevented from reaching at-risk group to fighting. In southern Somalia on Thursday, the United Nations stopped its air and ground operations after unidentified gunmen shot at one of its aircraft. No one was injured.

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