British charities warned on Thursday they faced a massive shortfall in funding to tackle a growing food crisis in South Sudan and said some areas could slide into famine.
The Disasters Emergency Committee, which brings together 13 leading UK aid charities in times of crisis, said it had less than half the £113 million ($194 million) it needs to respond to a potential catastrophe in the world's youngest country, where conflict erupted six months ago.
"We are gravely concerned that millions of people are facing an extreme food crisis in South Sudan this summer and there is a very real risk of famine in some areas," DEC Chief Executive Saleh Saeed said.
The main cause of the crisis is the conflict that broke out in December between factions of the ruling party. The violence has uprooted 1.5 million people including 400,000 who have fled to neighbouring countries. The displaced include many farmers, who have been prevented from planting or harvesting crops.
Experts have said that 3.9 million people will face severe food insecurity by August if fighting continues and there is no increase in international assistance.
The same experts helped predict the seriousness of the 2011 East Africa food crisis, which led to the first famine of the 21st century in south central Somalia.
The DEC said it had secured only £56 million in funding so far. Work planned by the aid agencies, which include Oxfam, Save the Children and the British Red Cross, includes providing food and drinking water, treating acute malnutrition and tackling a cholera outbreak.
Fighting and the start of the rainy season are making many areas hard to reach and the rains are turning some roads into "rivers of mud", the DEC said. No food aid has been delivered to some parts of the northeastern states of Jonglei, Unity and Upper Nile.
The DEC said subsistence farmers who have managed to plant some crops will begin harvesting them in August before they are fully ripe. This may save some people from starving, but could deplete what is already expected to be a very poor main harvest beginning in October.
Saeed said the level of need in South Sudan was high enough to justify an appeal, but that public awareness of the crisis in Britain remained very low, making a successful appeal extremely difficult.
The United Nations has reported that only $758 million of the $1.8 billion requested for the overall humanitarian response to the crisis has been secured.