An emergency United Nations food airlift is expected to begin today to help more than 11 million people facing starvation in East Africa's killer drought.
The first UN World Food Programme aircraft should have taken off from Nairobi in Kenya yesterday but were grounded by last-minute logistical hurdles.
"The aircraft are loading with the hope that they can take off on Wednesday," WFP spokesman David Orr said.
"This will be the first of a series of flights. Once they start, they will just keep coming and coming in an ongoing operation."
The WFP flights to Mogadishu in Somalia will be carrying about 14 tonnes of high-energy food to combat malnutrition, especially in children. Aircraft will also go to the Ethiopian town of Dolo on the border with Somalia and to the town of Wajir in northern Kenya.
A team from the UAE Red Crescent is also in Mogadishu to establish how the aid agency can best direct its resources to help those in need.
The UN estimates that more than 11 million people are affected by the worst drought in the region in 60 years, with 3.7 million in Somalia the worst-hit as a result of the country's continuing civil war. Millions more in Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya and Uganda have been stricken by famine.
Officials have warned that 800,000 children could die across the Horn of Africa.
The International Red Cross has handed out 400 tonnes of food in drought-hit areas controlled by hardline Al Shebab insurgents, the first drops led by the ICRC into such areas since 2009.
At an emergency meeting in Rome on Monday, officials said the UN had received about $1 billion (Dh3.67bn) since first launching an appeal for the region in November 2010, but needs a billion more by the end of the year to cope with the emergency.
The World Bank has pledged more than $500m, most of it for long-term projects to help livestock farmers and $12 million for immediate assistance to those worst hit.
However, charities have criticised low aid pledges and say not enough is being done.
The aid agency Doctors Without Borders said yesterday the situation remained dire for more than 387,000 mainly Somali refugees now in the Dadaab camp complex in eastern Kenya. Thousands of refugees continue to arrive but are not receiving basic support, the agency said."While many of these refugees remain on the outskirts of the camps they are still not receiving adequate assistance," MSF said.
The World Food Programme was forced to pull out of southern Somalia last year after a series of threats and curbs on its operations from Al Shebab, but it has continued to operate in Mogadishu and central and northern regions of the country.
In Mogadishu alone, WFP assists approximately 300,000 people and has been scaling up operations with three new centres to feed the large numbers of people flooding into the city from the south.
The new feeding efforts in the four districts of southern Somalia near the border with Kenya and Ethiopia could begin by tomorrow, slowing the flow of tens of thousands of people who have fled their homes in hope of reaching aid.
But the WFP has not operated there for more than two years, and must find and rehire former employees to help with distribution. Transport is also a substantial obstacle, as land mines have severed key roads and a landing strip has fallen into disrepair.
* Reporting by Agence France-Presse and the Associated Press