More than 10 million people in Eastern African are at the risk of starving, amid fears that the delay in the onset of the long rains will worsen the current food shortage and cause disease outbreaks.
Kenya, Uganda, South Sudan, Ethiopia and Somalia are already feeling the effects of drought, with deaths of people and livestock reported, and humanitarian organisations warning that the situation will worsen in the coming weeks.
The governments of Kenya and Uganda have already pressed the panic button. The delay in the onset of the long rains, which generally occur from March-May, will cause a significant food shortage with severe ripple effects particularly for communities living in arid and semi-arid areas.
The situation is expected to affect households due to skyrocketing food prices, food-instigated inflation and an economic crisis caused by the poor performance of the agricultural sector and the rising food import bill.
In Kenya, where over one million people urgently need food aid, the government has warned of widespread crop failure, water scarcity, loss of livestock, malnutrition and disease outbreaks if the rains fail.
"If the long rains continue to be delayed, the situation will worsen and as a result the number of people in need of relief will increase," said Eugene Wamalwa, the Devolution Cabinet Secretary.
He added that the government has so far provided $18 million for drought mitigation and released $6 million for relief food being distributed in 13 counties that are worst hit.
In Uganda, the government has cautioned traders against food exports and told them to sell to areas hit by the drought, particularly the Karamoja region.
"Traders should sell food to areas like eastern and northern Uganda as well as the Karamoja sub-region that do not have food," said the State Minister for Agriculture Christopher Kibanzanga.
According to humanitarian organisations like the Food Security and Nutrition Working Group and Oxfam, the food insecurity situation in the region is gravitating towards a catastrophe that can only be arrested through early action.
The delay in the start of the March to June long rains, coupled with forecast deficits in April, are building on already dry conditions due to poor October to December rains.
The poor performance of the short rains has already led to below-average crop production and deteriorating pastures in some agro-pastoral and marginal mixed farming areas, according to the Food Security and Nutrition Working Group.
"If the forecast rainfall deficits materialise in April, this would lead to an atypical increase in food insecurity likely to peak from June to October," said FSNWG.
Although the region has enough stocks of maize to last until July, there are concerns that production this year could decline significantly. In 2018, East Africa experienced a bumper harvest with Kenya producing 46 million bags of maize, up from 35 million bags the previous year.