Up to half a million children may become separated from their families as drought grips East Africa, aid agencies from the Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) have warned.

The DEC continues to appeal for funds as more than 10 million people are affected by food and water shortages across the region, spiralling food prices and the worst drought for 60 years in some areas. Members of the DEC, including child-focused agencies Save the Children, Plan, ActionAid, CARE and World Vision, continue to step up operations by providing emergency food, water and healthcare.

Disasters Emergency Committee Chief Executive Brendan Gormley said:

"In any emergency we see worryingly high levels of unaccompanied and separated children, but this drought is potentially worse than others because of the long distances families have to travel to seek help.

"Some parents are leaving children at home as they search for food, in the belief they will be safe there. Others are sending their older children out to find food, water and income, while they watch over the family homes. This highlights the increased risks children are facing as a result of this crisis."

“Unaccompanied children are more vulnerable to neglect, abuse, exploitation, disease and malnutrition, so we must ensure we focus on their needs. All efforts must be taken to keep families together, and where children do become separated we need to trace families and reunite children with their parents or caregivers wherever possible.”

Aid workers from Islamic Relief are discovering villages and schools deserted by children as they have left desperately searching for water. In just one village, 70 children had dropped out of school in the last three months as the drought worsened. Concerns are also mounting that families are being forced to enter younger children into arranged marriages.

Mama Selina, from Batei village in Kenya's northern Rift Valley, was forced to enter her 14-year-old daughter into an arranged marriage in exchange for precious livestock to help the family stay alive. Now, even the goats she received have died. Mum-of-seven Selina said: "Often I'm very hungry and I only eat leaves”. Her seven children have stopped begging her for food, she told World Vision. "When there's no food, they don't ask. They're used to living like that."