Aid agencies say that weather in the region has become more erratic.

Prolonged drought in the Horn of Africa is the immediate cause of the severe food crisis already affecting around 10 million people in parts of Kenya, Ethiopia, Djibouti and Somalia. Rains have failed over two seasons, with a strong La Nina event having a dramatic impact across the east coast of Africa. Now this year's wet season has officially ended, there is little prospect of rain or relief before September.

How far the current conditions, classified by the U.N. as “pre-famine” — one step down from “catastrophe” — can be attributed to climate change is not clear. The last intergovernment panel on climate change report suggested that the Horn of Africa would get wetter with climate change, while more recent academic research has concluded that global warming will increase drought in the region. However, according to aid agencies, the weather has become more erratic and extreme in recent years.

The structural causes of the crisis go deeper. The Horn of Africa has long been one of the most conflict-riven areas of the world and a focus of geopolitical struggles from the days of the British empire, through the Cold War, to the “war on terror”.

Its strategic position at the opening to the Red Sea and its oil and mineral interests have attracted foreign powers for over 150 years, as Alex de Waal, programme director at the Social Science Research Council, points out.

Northern Kenya and southern Ethiopia have been home to ethnic Somalis for generations, but the populations are marginalised by central governments.

The protracted war in Somalia has driven more than 20,000 more Somalis into Kenya in the past two weeks, says the UNHCR. Thousands have also fled drought and fighting in southern Somalia into the water-starved border areas of Ethiopia. The Kenyan government has periodically tried to close its border, although it is now open with 1,200-1,550 refugees a day crossing, according to some reports. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2011

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