By Tim Albone in Fendi Ajersai and Jack Malvern | August 19, 2008

Rapidly rising global food costs have contributed to the worst hunger crisis in East Africa for eight years, with at least 14 million people at risk of malnutrition, aid agencies said yesterday. In Ethiopia, the worst-affected country in the region, the Government said that 4.6 million people faced starvation, but aid agencies claimed that the true figure was closer to 10 million.

Drought has worsened food shortages, and Oxfam said that the number of acute malnutrition cases had reached its highest level since the droughts of 2000, when mortality rates peaked at more than six people per 10,000 per day. The official definition of a famine is more than four deaths per 10,000 per day.

Ethiopian farmers said that the crisis was caused by the absence of the Belg rains, which were due in February and March. “It’s really hard. People are eating whatever they can find,” said Gemeda Worena, 38, the tribal head of Fendi Ajersai, a village in southern Ethiopia where six children died in one week this month. “We hadn’t had rain for the last eight months. We had to buy water to save our lives, but now we have nothing.”

Mr Worena said that the price of maize had risen fourfold in the past year, a severe blow for villagers with what little money they had saved.

Surprisingly, when The Times visited the region, the fields were alive with maize and most afternoons a warm rain fell. “Here the problem is acute,” said Jean de Cambry, the emergency co-ordinator for Médecins Sans Frontières in southern Ethiopia. “It is very surprising and very strange, because everything is so green. But food stocks at household level are empty or close to empty.”

The United Nations World Food Programme is providing emergency food assistance to 3.2 million people in Ethiopia and 900,000 people in northern Kenya, where poor rains and political violence have disrupted food production.

The programme is also feeding 707,000 people in the Karamoja region of northeastern Uganda, where erratic rainfall has prevented 90 per cent of the population from planting for the current growing season, and aims to give help to 115,000 people in Djibouti, just under a quarter of the tiny country’s population.

The UN says that 2.6 million people in Somalia are in need of food assistance as a result of drought, conflict, hyperinflation, and high food and fuel prices. The World Food Programme believes that the figure will rise to 3.5 million in December.

Chris Leather, a food security expert for Oxfam, said: “We haven’t seen such high rates of acute malnutrition, of above 20 per cent, in as many places as we’re seeing right now, since 2000.” He said that 3 per cent of those found to have acute malnutrition had a high risk of dying if there was no intervention.

In Fendi Ajersai, the haunting wails of women paying their respects to the dead have become more frequent in recent months. When The Times visited this month villagers were mourning the latest victim of the famine, Tariky Gamedo, a football-loving, 13-year-old boy.

“He was my brother,” cried Basha Dekeo, 25, as her father tried to hold her flailing arms, “He is gone.”

Mr Worena said: “We have lost six kids this week.”

Despite the recent rainfalls and the apparent lushness of the countryside, the future does not look much better. Next month the harvest takes place, but many expect it to be smaller than is needed. Planting has been done largely by hand because so much livestock died before the rains arrived. The animals that survived are so skinny that when they can work the pace is pitifully slow.

Accurate numbers of how many people have died of hunger are impossible to find, with the Ethiopian Government seemingly determined to cover up the true extent of the problem.

Access to areas affected by famine is strictly controlled, with journalists needing permits. At one feeding centre, government officials refused The Times permission to photograph or film it.

At a feeding centre run by Médecins Sans Frontières in the town of Senbeta Shalla, the severity of the problem was clear to see. More than a thousand people queued for food and medical aid, and many had stick-thin limbs and swollen bellies, their desperation clear to see.

“The rains failed, everybody lost their crops,” Gamtou Defso, 70, a farmer, said. “We are just eating anything we find on the ground. I am hungry and I feel really sick . . . We don’t have any food to eat.”

Mieke Staanssens, the field co-ordinator for Médecins Sans Frontières, said: “They don’t even have the energy to cry.”