JUBA: Famine will break out in war-torn South Sudan within weeks unless massive funding for food aid is provided, aid agencies warned Thursday.
"If the conflict in South Sudan continues, and more aid cannot be delivered, then by August it is likely that some localized areas of South Sudan will slip into famine," warned Britain's Disasters Emergency Committee, 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 stalled.
The United Nations has around 40 percent of the cash it needs, with a shortfall of over a billion dollars.
"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 U.N.'s definition.
Rains this year are hoped to be around average or slightly below, according to U.N. experts, with hunger 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 remains limited by fighting and the start of the rainy season which has turned many unpaved roads into rivers of mud," the aid agencies added.
Doctors Without Borders (MSF), which has earned a reputation for working in some of toughest war zone conditions across the world, said Monday that 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.
Over 100,000 civilians are crammed inside squalid camps inside U.N. bases across the country, with numbers continuing to rise.
The U.N. 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 U.S.-based Fund for Peace think tank last month ranked South Sudan as bottom of its fragile states index, surpassing anarchic Somalia to be worst in the world. It warned that neither the rebels nor the government appear to perceive "that it is 'losing' and could be compelled to put down arms."