"Two consecutive poor rainy seasons have resulted in one of the driest years since 1950-51 in many pastoral zones," the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said at a news conference. "There is no likelihood of improvement until 2012."
More than 10 million people are affected -- including 117,000 in Djibouti, 3.2 million each in Ethiopia and Kenya, 2.6 in Somalia and 883,000 in Uganda -- and the situation is quickly deteriorating, spokeswoman Elisabeth Byrs said.
A U.N. "food security" map of the region indicated parts of Kenya and Somalia are one step away from being classified as "catastrophe-famine," the most severe category, Britain's The Guardian newspaper reported.
Child malnutrition rates in the worst-affected areas are more than double the 15 percent emergency threshold and are climbing fast, as are children's death rates, Byrs said. A sharp rise in food prices has compounded drought pressures, pushing even moderately poor households to the brink, the agency said.
More than 20,000 famished Somalis crossed the southwest border into Kenya in the past two weeks, the U.N. Refugee Agency said Friday.
The influx number was far greater than last year, when 6,000 to 8,000 Somali refugees crossed into Kenya in a typical month, the agency said.
Acute malnutrition rates among the new Somali refugees were as high as 45 percent, "exceeding all emergency thresholds, and death rates are at emergency levels," the agency said.
The $525 million needed to provide humanitarian assistance in Somalia and the $252 million for Kenya is barely 50 percent funded, Byrs said.
Somalia, Kenya, Djibouti and Ethiopia suffered a food crisis in 2006, with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimating more than 11 million people were affected by widespread famine, attributed to a severe drought and exacerbated by regional military conflicts.