Nomadic farmers in the arid wastelands of northern Kenya are dying with their cattle, as charities warn a famine on the scale of Niger is threatening the region.

So far, scores of people, mainly children, have died and the UN has warned that 2.5 million people are at risk of starvation because seasonal rains failed for the second time in a year. The Kenyan government has declared a national disaster and called for 11 billion Kenyan shillings, about £90m, to be jointly raised by Kenya and the international community.

In the worst-hit north-eastern region close to the Somali border, many pastoral farmers have lost their entire livestock because rains expected in April and then October failed to arrive.

Local media has reported nearly 50 fatalities but it is feared the toll may be many times higher since most deaths are likely to have gone unrecorded because of the Muslim practice of burying the dead on the same day of death.

Relief efforts have intensified, with the Government sending the army to distribute supplies and the Kenyan Red Cross initiating a programme to buy cattle from destitute farmers.

The scale of the crisis has shocked aid agencies in one of Africa's more stable and affluent countries.

Oxfam's humanitarian programmes co-coordinator for Kenya, Josie Buxton, said the current level of aid had to at least double.

She said: "At the moment, it looks extremely serious and there is a very real risk that we could have a Niger-type scenario on our hands."

In the north-eastern district of Wajir, the village of Qu'laley lies in dusty bushland, about 200 miles from the Somali border.

Scores of hungry families have been arriving every day from the bush in search of water and food aid.

The rotting corpses of cattle litter the area, scattered between the nomad's makeshift straw huts.

Outside their huts, veiled women prepare a porridge made from maize to feed their remaining livestock, which lie around listlessly in the sun. Othowa Jimale-Ali stands over the simple grave of his baby daughter dug in the scorched earth and marked poignantly by a leafy branch - one of the few pieces of greenery found in this dusty land.

The six-month old, called Fatima, died three days ago from chronic diarrhoea almost certainly caused by a weakening of her immune system because of malnutrition after her mother was unable to breastfeed.

Othowa, 50, said: "I've never known it like this, all the land is dry and there is nowhere to take our cattle. I have lost 50 cows now. It is the will of God and we must trust he will bring us rain."

Within Kenya, blame for the crisis has been levelled at the long-term policy of mass deforestation, which has turned arable farmland to arid desert.

Kenyan Nobel prizewinner, Wangari Maathai, said major deforestation, started by the British during colonial rule and continued legally and illegally after independence, had reduced indigenous forest cover to just 1.7 per cent.

"The tragedies this country are facing today such as drought, famine and poverty have been exacerbated by the gradual degradation of our environment - including indigenous forests," the Ms Maathai said.

Ms Maathai, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for her devotion to Africa's forests, said Kenya needed at least 10 per cent of its land mass under forest cover to safeguard agriculture, health and water supplies.

Medical superintendent Dr Eliud Aluvaala said that, despite fact-finding visits from government officials and the UN, the hospital had yet to receive any help.

He said: "It's no good sending fact-finding missions - that won't feed the children who are starving."

Ms Buxton also criticised the response to the crisis. She said: "This is something that is happening time and again in Africa. A humanitarian crisis unfolds that we can see coming a long way off and yet despite warnings, nothing is done until it is too late."