MASERU, Lesotho — An estimated 500,000 people are threatened with hunger in Lesotho, a quarter of the mountain kingdom's population, according to the United Nations, which is appealing to the international community for help.

A drought last year and patchy rains this year have contributed to poor harvests that have left large parts of the rural population without adequate food, said U.N. resident coordinator Salvator Niyonzima.

The European Union on Monday announced aid worth 1.5 million euros ($1.6 million) but much more is needed.

An estimated $74 million is needed to get adequate food for the country, according to an appeal launched last year by the Lesotho government when it declared the shortage of food an emergency.

Lesotho, like other parts of southern Africa, received below normal rainfall in the 2018-19 rainy season due to the El-Nino induced drought.

It is unlikely that the upcoming 2020 harvest season will significantly improve the food situation as the rains came very late and many rural farmers did not even plant any crops, Niyonzima said.

Lesotho's women and young girls have been hit hardest by the food shortages and they will be more vulnerable to sexual abuse and sexual exploitation as a result of the food insecurity, according to a U.N. report.

"Girls and young women who are heads of households are also more exposed to sexual abuse and sexual exploitation in exchange for food," the report says. "Occasional reports mention that some girls drop out of school to support the household and siblings. Child marriages are likely to rise in the near future and need to be monitored."