Uganda could be the next country hit by alarming malnutrition rates due to drought which has already sparked famine in southern Somalia and hunger in Kenya, Ethiopia and Djibouti, the United Nations warned on Tuesday.
Pockets of food insecurity have already been detected in drought-hit northern areas of Uganda, east Africa's third largest economy, the U.N.'s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) said.
"Uganda may be the next country hit with these same sorts of alarming malnutrition and drought conditions," FAO's Sandra Aviles told a news briefing.
An estimated 600,000 people in drought-prone northern Uganda currently face moderate food insecurity, corresponding to phase two on a U.N. scale where five means famine, she told Reuters.
"Drought conditions need to be monitored because they spread like wildfire," she said.
Famine has been declared in two regions of southern Somalia but may soon engulf as many as six more regions of the lawless nation, the U.N. humanitarian chief said on Monday.
Some 12.4 million people in Kenya, Ethiopia, Somalia and Djibouti are already in dire need of help due to the worst drought in 60 years, U.N. under-secretary-general and emergency relief coordinator Valerie Amos said in New York.
The world body appealed on Tuesday to air carriers to provide free or heavily discounted cargo space to transport life-saving food to starving children in the region.
"There are over 2.3 million acutely malnourished children in the Horn of Africa. More than half a million will die if they do not get help within weeks," Marixie Mercado of the U.N. Children's Fund (UNICEF) said.
Tens of thousands of Somalis have already died from starvation or diseases caused by it, half of them children under age five, the United Nations says.
UNICEF has 5,000 tonnes of therapeutic and supplementary food supplies stored in France, Belgium and Italy, enough to feed 300,000 malnourished children for a month. The agency needs to bring 400 tonnes of supplies to its regional hub in Nairobi each week by air, a costly operation, until it can set up a food pipeline by sea in about 6 weeks.
With therapeutic feeding, a malnourished child can fully recover in 4 to 6 weeks, Mercado said.
British Airways, Lufthansa, UPS and Virgin have offered to transport between 15 to 50 tonnes per week for a limited period, she said.
Cargolux, Europe's largest all-cargo airline, has offered to bring 107 tonnes from Luxembourg to Nairobi, she said.
The crisis was intensified by fighting in Somalia, much of which is controlled by Islamist al-Shabaab militias who have been preventing some aid agencies bringing in supplies.
"We're trying to provide cash-for-work programmes helping famine-hit farmers and herders in Somalia to feed their families," FAO's Aviles said on Tuesday.
Somali refugees fleeing violence and drought continue to stream into Kenya, with more than 40,000 arriving in July in the sprawling Dadaab camps, which now shelter more than 420,000, according to the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).