NAIROBI: The United Nations' humanitarian chief warned on Monday that drought-ravaged Somalia was on the brink of famine for the second time in just over a decade, and time was running out to save lives.
"Famine is at the door and we are receiving a final warning," Martin Griffiths told a media conference in the Somali capital Mogadishu.
A food and nutrition report due for release on Monday has "concrete indications" that famine would strike the regions of Baidoa and Burhakaba in south-central Somalia between October and December, Griffiths said.
"I've been shocked to my core these past few days by the level of pain and suffering we see so many Somalis enduring," said the head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), who began a visit to the country on Thursday.
"The unprecedented failure of four consecutive rainy seasons, decades of conflict, mass displacement, severe economic issues are pushing many people to... the brink of famine," he added. "We are in the last moment of the 11th hour to save lives."Get the latest news
Somalia and its neighbors in the Horn of Africa, including Ethiopia and Kenya, are in the grip of the worst drought in more than 40 years after four failed rainy seasons wiped out livestock and crops.
Humanitarian agencies have been ringing alarm bells for months and say the situation is likely to deteriorate with a fifth failed rainy season probably in the offing.
Griffiths said the situation was worse in Somalia than during the last famine in 2011, when 260,000 people, more than half of them children under age six, died.
The UN's World Food Program (WFP) said last month the number of people at risk of starvation across the Horn had increased to 22 million.
In Somalia alone, the number of people facing crisis hunger levels is 7.8 million, or about half the population, while about a million have fled their homes on a desperate quest for food and water, UN agencies say.
Griffiths described scenes of heartrending suffering during a visit to Baidoa, describing it as the epicenter of the crisis, where he saw "children so malnourished they could barely speak" or cry.
'Beyond breaking point'
Conflict-wracked Somalia is considered one of the most vulnerable to climate change, but is particularly ill-equipped to cope with the crisis.
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