Nairobi: The UN officially declared famine in two parts of southern Somalia on Wednesday as the world slowly mobilised to save the 12 million people battling hunger in the region's worst drought in 60 years.
The United States urged the al Qaeda-inspired rebels controlling the area to allow the return of the relief groups they expelled two years ago while aid groups warned many would die without urgent action and funding.
"The United Nations declared today that famine exists in two regions of southern Somalia: southern Bakool, and Lower Shabelle," a statement by the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs for Somalia said.
The region is Somalia's breadbasket and the UN said that an estimated 3.7 million people or nearly half of the war-torn country's population were facing a food 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," UN humanitarian coordinator for Somalia Mark Bowden told reporters.
"If we are not able to intervene immediately, tens of thousands more Somalis may die," the UN added.
Somalia, which has been affected by almost uninterrupted conflict for 20 years and become a by-word for "failed state", is the worst affected nation but parts of Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia and Djibouti are also hit.
The United States urged neighbouring Eritrea, one of the most secretive countries in the world, to reveal the scope mof its own food situation.
"Given the combination of severity and geographic scope this is the most severe food security crisis in Africa since the 1991/2 Somalia famine," the UN added.
Famine implies that at least 20 percent of households face extreme food shortages, acute malnutrition in over 30 percent of people, and two deaths per 10,000 people every day, according to UN definition.
First Published: Wednesday, July 20, 2011, 21:37