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Women distribute food aid in Kenya's Laikipia district last week. A prolonged drought has wiped out harvests throughout the country. ((Khalil Senosi/Associated Press))

A prolonged drought has put millions of people on the brink of starvation in Kenya and the surrounding region, the United Nations cautioned Tuesday.

Children are beginning to die as a result of crop failures and rising commodity prices, while even electricity in Nairobi has had to be rationed.

"At the moment, about 19 million people are food insecure and need food assistance in the region. That number is going up as we are not expecting any rains until October," said Burke Oberle, the Kenya country director for the UN's World Food Program.

"If those rains don't materialize, we are expecting things to become catastrophic."

Oberle warned that the dire situation could become as bad as the drought of 1984, which produced the Ethiopian famine that left hundreds of thousands dead.

The UN is appealing for $230 million to feed some four million people in Kenya who will need emergency food aid for the next six months. But amid the global economic crisis, so far, it is nowhere near to reaching that goal.

The entire region — including Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia and Djibouti — has seen a near-total failure of the "long," or spring, rains, which are crucial for agriculture and farming. Kenya's grain harvest is expected to be 28 per cent lower. Food prices have jumped by as much as 130 per cent.

"By the season's end, experts predict half the goat and cattle population in the country's pastoral areas will be lost due to the direct and indirect effects of the drought," the World Food Program said Tuesday on its website.

The prevalence of acute malnutrition among Kenyan children is hovering around 20 per cent, hitting 30 per cent in some areas.

The drought is causing electrical blackouts in the Kenyan capital, because there's not enough water for hydroelectric plants.

With rivers thinning to a trickle and mountaintop glaciers shrinking, authorities this month began rationing power in Nairobi, darkening homes and businesses at least three days a week.

Kenyan Prime Minister Raila Odinga this month also warned of a catastrophe if the October rains don't come, expressing fear that inter-faction violence could ensue.

With files from The Associated Press