Tens of people have died and thousands more are threatened with starvation in the Burundian provinces of Kirundo in the north and Muyinga in the northeast, according to local administrative officials.
The government officially declared the two provinces famine-stricken on Friday, and called for concerted efforts to assist the affected residents.
"The rains disappeared last year before crops were ready for harvesting," said Phillipe Njoni, the governor of Kirundo.
At least 30 people have died so far in the two provinces, according to news reports although the government is yet to provide any statistics.
Njoni told IRIN that in Kirundo 10 people died in the communes of Bugabira and Busoni in the last two months. In Muyinga, the governor there, Said Badende, said seven people died in Gisange and Gashoho communes.
The worst affected communes in Kirundo province are Busoni, Bugabira, Ntega and parts of Kirundo commune. Crops have been failing there due to poor rains since 1998. Production of cassava has also dropped because of the cassava mosaic disease.
Desperate Kirundo residents are currently eating leaves and roots in order to survive, according to local news reports. Some have resorted to begging; some are stealing. Other residents are fleeing to neighbouring provinces and across the border to neighbouring Rwanda.
Roughly US $50 million relief aid is urgently needed for the starving populations, according to the Minister for Relocation and Resettlement of Internally Displaced People and Refugees, Françoise Ngendahayo. "This would temporarily alleviate a humanitarian catastrophe," she said.
Burundian President Domitien Ndayizeye signed a decree on Friday calling for national solidarity for the famine-stricken residents of Kirundo and Muyinga. In announcing the decree, foreign affairs minister Térence Sinunguruza, called on international NGOs and representatives of the donor community to assist.
Relief efforts have started. The UN World Food Programme is distributing food based on lists established by local NGOs.
Officials of the African Union (AU) last week handed $2,000 to the Kirundo governor and the Bon Bergers Church in Bujumbura gave a similar amount on Sunday.
The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has been distributing drought resistant cassava seeds in the provinces since crops failed in 1997, said senior FAO consultant Joseph Sakubu. FAO has also been helping farmers utilise the many lakes in Kirundo for irrigation.
A joint commission comprised of officials from the government, NGOs and churches was set up in December with a mandate to oversee distribution of relief aid.