The United Nations on Wednesday declared famine in two regions of southern Somalia, and warned that this could spread further within two months in the war-ravaged Horn of Africa country unless donors step in.
Mark Bowden, humanitarian coordinator 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.
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 U.N. said.
The south is controlled by al Shabaab Islamist insurgents, affiliated to al Qaeda, who are fighting to topple the Western-backed government in the anarchic country. 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 if they do not. Others say the rebels want bribes.
The U.N. 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 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."
Bowden said the U.N. is appealing for $300 million over the next two months for Somalia alone.
The U.N. said across the country, 3.7 million people, nearly half of the Somali population, were now in danger, of whom 2.8 million people are in the south.
Famine is defined as a crude mortality rate of more than 2 people per 10,000 per day and wasting rates of above 30 percent in children under five years old across an entire region, according to the U.N. Children's Fund (UNICEF).
UN declares famine in parts of Somalia