The world should not wait until famine is declared in Somalia to respond to worsening hunger caused by drought and conflict, the most senior United Nations official in the country said on Monday.
Philippe Lazzarini, the U.N.'s humanitarian coordinator for Somalia, said $60 million is needed to save the lives of 50,000 children over the next two months and to deliver food and water to 857,000 people, most of whom are internally displaced.
"This situation has troubling similarities with the situation which prevailed before the famine in 2011," Lazzarini said at a news conference on Monday.
"One of the main lessons learned from 2011 was if we wait for the official declaration of a famine to start to respond to the needs, it will be far too late. At the time we did it, half of the 260,000 people who died because of the famine, [had] already died."
In July 2011, the United Nations declared a famine in Somalia, which killed 260,000 people, mostly children. The famine was caused by two failed harvests, conflict and a ban on agencies delivering food aid in territory held by the Islamist militant group al Shabaab.
The famine ended in February 2012 thanks to better rains and increased humanitarian assistance.
Once again, Somalia is experiencing drought, a shortage of aid money and conflict, which has disrupted planting and displaced people, as well as making it difficult for traders and humanitarians to deliver food.
One of the reasons food prices are increasing in markets like Xudur, Waajid and Bulo Burto is because al Shabaab is laying siege to towns that have recently been captured by African Union and Somali government forces. They are only accessible by air.
"A number of newly accessible areas are, for the time being, completely surrounded," Lazzarini said.
"Since they [al Shabaab] are in control of the road, they are preventing the private truck drivers from using this road by threatening them to be ambushed or to be killed."
The U.N.'s children's fund is on the verge of cutting programmes providing primary health care services to three million people due to lack of funding, while the World Food Programme will face food shortages affecting 800,000 people by July, Lazzarini said.
The U.N.'s 2014 appeal for Somalia is only 17 percent funded at $160 million, which is half the amount of money received at the same time last year.
Lazzarini blamed competing global crises, growing humanitarian demands in the face of static amounts of funding and a shift from a humanitarian to a political agenda among donors to Somalia.
"I'm not trying to tell the donors we have a more compelling case in Somalia than in South Sudan or in Central African Republic," he said.
"But we should never forget that Somalia had a famine two years ago and that today, two years later, vulnerability in the country is still extremely high."
Levels of suffering that would be seen as an emergency in other countries are considered normal for Somalia, he said. One in ten children in Somalia die before their first birthday.
Malnutrition rates among one million internally displaced Somalis are above the global emergency threshold of 15 percent, yet water services have stopped because of lack of aid.
One of the main problems in 2011 was that people sought more and more data before acting.
"There were 16 early warnings last time until famine was declared. Today, we have already six early warnings [since November]," said Lazzarini.
Large numbers of people started dying of hunger in April 2011, three months before famine was declared, said Daniel Molla, chief technical adviser for the Food Security, Nutrition and Analysis Unit - Somalia.
The declaration of a famine requires the existence of three simultaneous indicators: mortality of two deaths per 10,000 people per day, acute malnutrition above 30 percent and severe problems accessing food.
"The criteria for declaring famine, the bar is set so high that by the time you declare, a lot of excess mortality will have occurred," he said.
"By the time you declare it, it's too late. Last time, 130,000 lives too late."