THE United Nations yesterday declared famine in two regions of southern Somalia and warned this could spread further within two months in the war-ravaged Horn of Africa unless donors stepped in.
Mark Bowden, humanitarian co-ordinator for Somalia, said southern Bakool and Lower Shabelle had been hit by the worst famine in the region in 20 years, and the situation could spread to all eight regions in the south of the country.
Years of drought -- also affecting Kenya and Ethiopia -- have hit harvests and conflict has made it extremely difficult for agencies to operate and access communities in the south of the country, the UN said.
Irish aid agencies Trocaire, Concern and GOAL have all issued appeals for support and stark warnings about the imminent dangers of mass starvation.
The south is controlled by al Shabaab Islamist insurgents, affiliated to al-Qa'ida, who are fighting to topple the Western-backed government. The group also controls parts of the capital Mogadishu and central Somalia.
In early July, the rebels lifted a ban on food aid which they had said created dependency. Some analysts say they are allowing aid in because they fear a public backlash. Others say the rebels want bribes.
The UN has said the inability of food agencies to work in the region since early 2010 because of the ban had contributed to the crisis.
"If we don't act now, famine will spread to all eight regions of southern Somalia within two months, due to poor harvests and infectious disease outbreaks," said Mr Bowden.
"Every day of delay in assistance is literally a matter of life or death for children and their families in the famine-affected areas," he added.
Mr Bowden said the UN is appealing for $300m (€210m) over the next two months for Somalia alone.
The UN said across the country, 3.7 million people -- nearly half of the Somali population -- were in danger, of whom 2.8 million are in the south.
The UN refugee agency, the UNHCR, said it was seeking further security guarantees from the armed rebels in order to deliver greater amounts of assistance and prevent more hungry people from becoming refugees.
Last night UN secretary general Ban Ki-Moon said $1.6bn (€750m) was needed to deal with the crisis.
"The developed world should take the lead," he said. "Every day of delay will cause more loss of life."
Less than a fifth of that €750m had been pledged, Oxfam said, with the response from most of Europe "surprisingly slow".
"There has been a catastrophic breakdown of the world's collective responsibility to act," said Fran Equiza, Oxfam's director in the Horn of Africa.
"Several rich governments are guilty of wilful neglect as the aid effort to avert catastrophe in east Africa limps along.
"The warning signs have been seen for months, and the world has been slow to act. By the time the UN calls it a famine it is already a signal of large- scale loss of life."
The UN defines famine as a mortality rate of more than two people per 10,000 per day, and wasting rates of above 30pc in children under five years old across an entire region.