Famine tragedy must not become a catastrophe, UN chief warns

The United Nations needs €4bn by the end of March to prevent devastating hunger and famine in South Sudan, Nigeria, Somalia and Yemen, yet just €86m has been collected so far, the world body's chief has said.

UN secretary general Antonio Guterres warned "we are facing a tragedy", with more than 20 million people at risk of starvation over the next six months and famine already declared in parts of South Sudan.

"We must avoid it becoming a catastrophe," he said.

Convening reporters for a briefing at the UN headquarters, Mr Guterres stressed concerns that UN officials and humanitarian groups have expressed in recent weeks about the lack of food in the four nations.

While they differed in many ways, their plights were all connected by a thread of violent conflict, Mr Guterres noted.

Drought is also a factor, particularly in Somalia.

Children's agency Unicef warned on Tuesday that nearly 1.4 million children were at "imminent risk of death" from acute malnutrition this year in the four countries.

A boy has his arm measured to see if he is suffering from malnutrition during a nutritional assessment at an emergency medical facility supported by UNICEF in Kuach, on the road to Leer, in South Sudan.

A day earlier, UN agencies and South Sudan's government said more than 100,000 were experiencing famine in two counties in South Sudan, a nation where tens of thousands of people have died in a civil war that began in December 2013 and severe inflation has put food beyond the financial reach of many.

UN and food organisations define famine as when more than 30% of children under five suffer from acute malnutrition and mortality rates are two or more deaths per 10,000 people every day, among other criteria.

Beyond the counties experiencing famine now, "millions of people are barely surviving in the space between malnutrition and death", Mr Guterres said.

In Nigeria, a seven-year uprising by the Islamic extremist group Boko Haram has killed more than 20,000 people and driven 2.6 million from their homes.

A UN humanitarian co-ordinator said last month malnutrition in the nation's north east was so pronounced that some adults are too weak to walk and some communities have lost all their toddlers.

Somalia, which faced famine in 2010-2011, is experiencing widespread drought and has endured years of conflict and attacks by Islamic militants of the al-Shabab group.

But the country is taking steps towards having its first fully functioning central government in 25 years, with newly-elected President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed inaugurated on Wednesday.

A file photo of a malnourished child being weighed on a scales at a clinic run by Doctors Without Borders in Maiduguri, Nigeria.

In Yemen, the Arab world's poorest nation, more than seven million people need emergency food aid, yet funding shortages have forced the World Food Programme to cut rations in Yemen by more than half since last year, Mr Guterres said.

Altogether, the UN says humanitarian operations in the four countries will cost more than £4.5 billion this year.

Despite the funding shortfall so far, Mr Guterres says he believes governments and other donors "will step up".

"In our world of plenty, there is no excuse for inaction or indifference," he said, adding: "There is no time to lose."

- AP

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