The United Nations is preparing its largest ever relief effort to combat hunger in Somalia's southern Bakool and Lower Shabelle regions, which are the site of the world's worst famine in 20 years.
The UN, which officially declared the situation in Somalia to be a famine on July 20, says tens of thousands of Somalis, most of them children, are feared dead and an estimated 3.7 million people -- nearly half of the country's population -- could starve to death if relief is not provided rapidly.
UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on July 20 urged countries to donate $1.6 billion in aid.
"The United Nations has been sounding the alert for months," he said. "We need donor support to address current needs and prevent further deterioration of the crisis. Humanitarian agencies need urgent funding to save lives. If funding is not made available for humanitarian interventions now, the famine is likely to continue and spread."
Ban said Somali children and adults were dying at "an appalling rate" and stressed that every day of delay was costing more lives.
Mark Bowden, UN humanitarian coordinator for Somalia, said the country currently had the highest malnutrition rates in the world.
At a news conference in Nairobi, Kenya, on July 20 he said that "in some parts of Somalia, malnutrition rates have reached extraordinarily high levels of 50 percent for children under five."
Islamist Insurgents Hampering Relief Efforts
Bowden said $300 million was needed over the next two months to address the famine, largely brought on by years of drought that have also affected Kenya and Ethiopia.
Relief groups say a ban on food aid imposed in 2010 by the Islamist militants who control southern Somalia has contributed to the crisis.
The Al-Shabaab insurgents, affiliated to Al-Qaeda, lifted the ban this month but doubts linger about their commitment not to interfere with aid distribution.
"The reason the aid hasn't gone in sufficient quantities into south and central Somalia is because Al-Shabaab has prevented those most capable of delivering large quantities of aid from having access," said Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, on July 20. 'And when they have had access, they've taxed them, harassed them, killed them, kidnapped them. So that's the problem."
The UN's World Food Program says Somalia is the most dangerous country in the world to work in.
The program suspended its activities in southern Somalia two years ago after 14 relief workers were killed or reported missing in the region.
compiled from agency reports