Geneva - Ethiopian children are facing a new threat after two years of drought because recent rainfall has increased the risk of lethal disease, the United Nations children's aid agency UNICEF said Friday.

Damien Personnaz, a UNICEF spokesman, said that rain in parts of the Oromia region had raised the spectre of diarrhea and malaria, which can be deadly among already vulnerable populations.

There is a "cruel irony" in the situation, he told reporters.

The brief showers have not been enough to undo the damage of two failed rainy seasons in the parched lowland region on the southern border with Kenya.

Malnutrition rates there are "alarming", with 56,000 youngsters aged under five at risk, and livestock deaths continue to climb, said Personnaz.

But there has still been enough rain to form shallow pools near villages, which are potential breeding grounds for malaria.

Rain water is also washing through piles of dead animals near many communities, and flowing on to pollute the few remaining water sources, said UNICEF in a statement.

Anyone drinking from the pools and the polluted sources risks catching waterborne diseases such as diarrhea, which is often relatively mild in wealthy countries but potentially fatal when it strikes a malnourished population with very little access to health facilities.

An estimated 1.7 million Ethiopians are struggling to survive the drought which is affecting the whole Horn of Africa including Kenya, Somalia and Djibouti.

Despite the recent showers, forecasters say that the April rainy season is again expected to fail.