Famine will break out in war-torn South Sudan within weeks unless there is massive funding for food aid, relief agencies warned on Thursday.
"If the conflict in South Sudan continues, and more aid cannot be delivered, then by August it is likely that some areas of South Sudan will slip into famine," warned Britain's Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC), a coalition of 13 major aid agencies. Thousands have been killed in the conflict in the world's youngest country, while more than 1.5 million have been forced to flee since the war broke out in mid-December. Peace talks are currently stalled. The United Nations has around 40 percent of the cash it needs, with a shortfall of over a billion dollars (760 million euros), with almost four million people in need of aid.
"There is a very real risk of famine in some areas," DEC chief Saleh Saeed said, warning that "millions of people are facing an extreme food crisis".
Famine implies that at least 20 percent of households face extreme food shortages, there is acute malnutrition in over 30 percent of people, and two deaths per 10,000 people every day, according to the UN's definition.
Rains this year are hoped to be around average or slightly below, according to UN experts, with hunger being caused by fighting not extreme climatic conditions.
The DEC coalition, which includes agencies such as Oxfam, Tearfund and Save the Children "have less than half the money they need to help prevent the growing food crisis in South Sudan turning into a catastrophe," Saeed added.
Fighting between forces of President Salva Kiir and troops loyal to rebel chief Riek Machar has been marked by widespread atrocities.
Kiir and Machar committed themselves last month to a third ceasefire deal, and agreed to forge a transitional government within 60 days, but fighting continues.
"Although humanitarian agencies are making every effort to increase aid deliveries, access has been limited by fighting and the start of the rainy season, which has turned many unpaved roads into rivers of mud," the aid agencies added.
On Monday, Doctors Without Borders (MSF), which has earned a reputation for working in some of toughest warzone conditions across the world, said the situation was the worst it had seen in years, even during the two decades of war that paved the way for South Sudan's independence three years ago.
Some 100,000 civilians are crammed inside squalid camps inside UN bases across the country.
"There are so many diseases because we are living on the ground, and there is rain," said Abraham Tut Mayak, who like thousands of others lives in a makeshift plastic shelter in the UN base in Juba.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which has begun its first air drops of food for two decades, said there are already "alarming signs" of malnutrition, its country chief Franz Rauchenstein said.
The UN mission in South Sudan opened the gates to its peacekeeping bases to civilians when heavy fighting broke out in mid-December, expecting to offer temporary shelter, but many of those inside the camps say they are too frightened to leave, fearing revenge attacks.
The US-based Fund for Peace think-tank last month ranked South Sudan as bottom of its fragile states index, surpassing anarchic Somalia as the worst in the world. It warned that neither the rebels nor the government appear to realise "that it is 'losing' and could be compelled to put down arms".