Hundreds of thousands of people in Somalia may die or be near death in May if immediate action isn't taken to address the threat of famine, Britain's envoy for the Horn of Africa warned Wednesday.
Nicholas Kay said at a briefing for a group of journalists that Britain is "deeply concerned by the famine warning in Somalia."
Somalia, which faced famine in 2010-2011, is currently experiencing widespread drought that was first declared in August 2015. According to the U.N. humanitarian office, 5 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance.
The Famine Early Warning Systems Network warned earlier this month that "nearly three million people in Somalia face crisis and emergency acute food insecurity" -- with little to eat.
The network, started by the U.S. Agency for International Development, said approximately 363,000 acutely malnourished children "need urgent treatment and nutrition support, including 71,000 who are severely malnourished."
Britain's government is organizing a conference on Somalia in London in May seeking to spur progress on long-term stability and security in the country, but Kay said that "action is needed immediately."
"If by the time the conference in May happens we are having to sound the alarm and discuss the famine issue, that is going to be too late," said Kay, the former top U.N. envoy for Somalia. "There may be hundreds of thousands of people dead or about to die."
Somalia began to fall apart in 1991, when warlords ousted dictator Siad Barre and then turned on each other. Years of conflict and attacks by the al-Shabab Islamic extremist group, along with famine, shattered the Horn of Africa country of some 12 million people.
The country has been trying to rebuild since establishing its first functioning transitional government and electing a new president Feb. 8.
U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric said the top priority for President Mohamed Abdullahi Farmajo's new government must be tackling the drought and "the imperative of averting a famine."
The famine network said that with severe drought gripping most parts of Somalia, the "food crisis is worsening in rural areas following consecutive seasons of poor rainfall and low river water levels." It said this has led to near total crop failures, reduced rural job opportunities, widespread shortages of water and pasture land, and an increase in livestock deaths.
Poor households are facing "rapidly diminishing" access to food as prices of staples continue to rise sharply and livestock prices decrease significantly, the network said.
The U.N. humanitarian appeal for 2017 for Somalia is $864 million to provide assistance to 3.9 million people. But additional funds are needed to cope with the worsening situation, and last month, the U.N. World Food Program launched a $26 million plan to respond to the drought.
Globally, the famine network said, the need for emergency food assistance is "unprecedented" -- with famine also possible in South Sudan and Yemen and likely in inaccessible areas of Nigeria's northeast.