The United Nations is appealing for more than $400 million to help victims of drought in Djibouti, Eritrea, Kenya and Somalia. The United Nations says it is not too late to avert a humanitarian catastrophe, if emergency needs are met immediately.

People in the Horn of Africa are suffering from water shortages and dwindling food reserves. This is a result of several years of rainfall failures and the rapid erosion of assets and livelihoods.

Former Norwegian Prime Minister Kjell Magne Bondevik is the U.N.'s special humanitarian envoy for the Horn of Africa. During a trip to the region in February, he says, he was struck by the amount of energy people expend just to find some water and to get some food.

"I saw with my own eyes women in Kenya walking 15-kilometers to get some water at bore holes for two or three days. I met a farmer who had 360 animals, out of them, 300 were dead," he said. "I asked him, is that because of lack of water for him. He said it was not water, but lack of grass. There are no stocks of grass."

Bondevik says members of predominately pastoral communities are forced to travel vast distances to find grazing for their animals. In addition, he says, the price of food has skyrocketed, because agricultural production is low.

He says the outlook for millions of drought victims is bleak. Without assistance, he says, many people face malnutrition, increased risk of disease, loss of livelihoods and even death.

"It is possible in my view to avoid a full catastrophe. Today, it is a crisis," he said. "But, it can develop into a catastrophe, if you do not act and react now, immediately."

But, the special U.N. envoy says countries in the region could also do more to address the root causes of drought, and to be prepared for the next crisis.

"If they had stocks of grass, for instance, to protect grass from the rainy season over to the drought seasons, they could have saved many, many animals," he said. "And, saving animals means saving milk for the children and the meat for the people. And, drilling more bore holes, which is also possible in spite of the ecological systems - it could help women, so they did not have to walk so long for getting water."

Climate experts warn, below average rains are expected in much of the Horn of Africa again this year. Even if rainfall levels exceed expectations, they say, the situation will remain critical.

The United Nations says money from the appeal will provide food, water and sanitation, health and nutrition, livestock and agriculture.