By Mehreen Zahra-Malik and Eissa Saeed
ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Dozens of children have died of malnutrition and other causes in Pakistan's southern region this year, prompting Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to travel to the drought-stricken area to allocate $10 million in emergency aid.
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) said 18 children under the age of five had died in January and another 23 in February.
Pakistan's National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) confirmed the U.N. figures, saying 26 under-five children had also died in December when a severe drought hit the Tharparkar area of the southern region of Sindh.
The drought has affected an estimated 900,000 people, according to the Tharparkar deputy commissioner's office.
Sharif flew to the arid region on Monday to promise $10 million in aid.
"The people will soon be able to return to their homes and prosperity will come to these areas," Sharif promised in televised comments. "The situation will improve very soon."
The extreme dry weather is compounding the plight of the impoverished farming region, where health services are poor and unemployment is high.
Hazem el Mahi, a UNOCHA spokesman, said it was too early to say exactly what was causing the spike in child mortality, but that it was a combination of infections and maternal and child malnutrition.
"We are not aware of adult deaths so far," he said.
"We have started a joint assessment with the Pakistan government only today and we can't know the real situation on the ground until the assessment is complete."
Pakistani media said the children were dying due to drought-related malnutrition. No figures for deaths in March have been released.
Local media have said relief goods were not reaching the affected area promptly. One report said 60,000 sacks of flour had been dispatched to Sindh but only 900 had been distributed.
"He (Sharif) directed to ensure swift provision of edible commodities, drinking water and medicine to the people," the prime minister's office said in a statement. It said Sharif had also ordered strict action against those responsible for "negligence" in distributing wheat in Tharparkar.
NDMA director Raza Iqbal attributed the distribution problems to delays in paying transport companies. "There are administration issues," he said, but gave no details.
Provincial authorities, relief groups and political parties have sent food, medicine and other items to the drought-hit areas.
(Editing by Maria Golovnina and Alistair Lyon)