In February, South Sudan and the United Nations formally declared a famine in some parts of the northern Greater Unity region affecting 100,000 people.
PIC: A cholera-stricken woman showing signs of malnutrition sits next to fellow patients (background) outside a temporary field hospital near the remote village of Dor in the Awerial county in south-central Sudan on April 28. (AFP)
The famine ravaging South Sudan and its neighbours could claim six million lives, a charity warned Friday, as the international community struggles to raise the $4.4 billion needed to avert a full-blown disaster.
The food crisis in the world's youngest country is one of the key issues being discussed at this week's World Economic Forum on Africa in Durban, which has brought together the continent's business and political elite.
Saira Khan, the chief executive of the charity Stop Hunger Now Southern Africa, warned that a chaotic international response to the situation in South Sudan was threatening the lives of millions.
"It's pretty gloomy. We're seeing a lot of confusion amongst the NGOs and governments in terms of what needs to be done," she said.
"It's a difficult time for that region -- and if we don't do anything we're going to have six million people dead at the end of this year because of famine."
In February, South Sudan and the United Nations formally declared a famine in some parts of the northern Greater Unity region affecting 100,000 people, a disaster UN officials said was "man-made" and could have been averted.
After gaining independence from Sudan in 2011, the country descended into civil war in December 2013 when a power struggle erupted between President Salva Kiir and his former deputy Riek Machar. Tens of thousands died and more than 3.5 million have been displaced.
"The real instability in the area with the war and migrants just going and settling where they can has contributed to this and put enormous pressure on Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda," Khan said.
Oxfam International's executive director Winnie Byanyima told AFP that a huge funding shortfall for relief efforts was threatening lives.
Go hungry or 'be raped'
The UN has estimated that $4.4 billion is needed by July to avoid widespread loss of life in South Sudan -- but just 26 percent of that has been raised so far.
"The need is huge, the gap is huge," Byanyima said. "It needs to be filled urgently. When people die in a famine it's a sign of failure because you can prevent it if you act early enough."
More than 1.9 million people are internally displaced and at least 1.7 million have fled to safety across the country's borders so far. A total of 830,000 South Sudanese refugees have fled to neighbouring Uganda and the UN expects this figure will reach more than a million by mid-year.
"I visited places where people are trapped in what are called 'protection of civilian' camps. The women there face a choice between hunger or stepping out and being raped while looking for food," Byanyima said.
Elsewhere in Africa, Byanyima warned that Nigeria could face its own famine crisis.
"I have just been to northeast Nigeria, a region that has been devastated by Boko Haram," she said. "There are 47,000 people living there in famine-like conditions. Another five million could experience famine in the next few months".
'Paradox of Africa'
Relief agencies in northern Nigeria will run out of money to avert food shortages as early as June, Peter Lundberg, the UN's deputy humanitarian coordinator for Nigeria, said recently.
The World Food Programme says that 4.7 million people across three areas of northeast Nigeria are already facing acute hunger while the Red Cross warns that five children are dying daily of starvation.
Ahead of the WEF, South Africa's deputy finance minister Sifiso Buthelezi highlighted the disconnect between Africa's vast natural resources and its persistent hunger issues.
"...it's part of the paradox of Africa. You have got vast lands but our people are starving. There's definitely something that we need to do," he said.
Byanyima called for the United Nations to be overhauled to face the challenges in South Sudan.
"Today it is so dysfunctional and unable to get the Security Council to bear pressure on leaders who are behaving irresponsibly such as in South Sudan," she said.
Gilbert Houngbo, the new head of the UN's International Fund for Agricultural Development, said that efforts were needed to prepare South Sudan's agriculture for when peace returns.
"Our guys are already active in preparing for an early recovery," Houngbo told AFP. "It's going to be difficult, but it's not impossible. The major impediment is still our ability to be there to come to a peace agreement."
The theme of the 27th WEF on Africa is "Leadership in an era of disruption". It has drawn more than 1,200 participants, including several heads of state.
Oxfam released a report to coincide with the start of the forum which winds up on Friday, revealing that seven of the world's top 20 unequal countries are in Africa.
It warned that if economic growth continues to benefit only a small African elite, an additional 350 million people could be forced into poverty by 2032.