Parts of southern Somalia are suffering from famine, a UN official said Wednesday, and tens of thousands of Somalis have already died in the worst hunger emergency in a generation.

The Horn of Africa is suffering a devastating drought compounded by war, neglect and spiralling prices. Some areas in the region have not had such a low rainfall in 60 years, aid group Oxfam said.

The UN needs $300 million in the next two months, said Mark Bowden, the UN's top official in charge of humanitarian aid in Somalia.

The last time conditions were this bad was in 1992, when hundreds of thousands of Somalis starved to death.

That famine prompted intervention by an international peacekeeping force, but it eventually pulled out after two American Black Hawk helicopters were shot down in 1993.

The southern Somali regions of Bakool and Lower Shabelle regions are suffering from famine, Bowden said. Across East Africa, more than 11.3 million people need aid, the World Food Program said.

"Somalia is facing its worst food security crisis in the last 20 years," Bowden said. "This desperate situation requires urgent action to save lives."

Famine in Africa:

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Famine is officially defined as when two adults or four children per 10,000 people die of hunger each day and a third of children are acutely malnourished.

In some areas of Somalia, six people are dying a day and more than half the children are acutely malnourished, Bowden said. Prices of staple foods have increased 270 per cent over the last year.

"If we don't act now, famine will spread to all eight regions of southern Somalia within two months, due to poor harvests and infectious diseases," Bowden said.

"We still do not have all the resources for food, clean water, shelter and health services to save the lives of hundreds of thousands of Somalia."

Notes from Nairobi

curt-petrovich

Many of the people fleeing Somalia head to Dadaab, an overcrowded network of refugee camps in northeast Kenya.

CBC's Curt Petrovich, who recently visited Dadaab, said some people arrived at the camps on the brink of death after making long journeys with limited food and water. CARE International has been working in the area, distributing food in the camps around Dadaab.

"The declaration of a famine is to call attention to the international community to just how severe that problem is, and without their support thousands of people will die," said Stephen Gwynne-Vaughan, CARE's country director for Kenya.

Gwynne-Vauhgan, a Canadian, said using the word "famine" may help get people's attention.

"An international donor that might have been able to provide $500,000 for humanitarian emergency — at the level of a famine might be able to provide additional assistance," he said.

James Karanja, an outreach worker with the UN's refugee agency in Nairobi, said that the declaration of a famine in Somalia could also affect neighbouring Kenya.

Karanja said some people fleeing Somalia are bypassing the camps and heading straight for the slums of Nairobi, and that declaring the situation a famine could encourage even more people to flee across the border.

"Kenya is already going through a moment when there is not sufficient food in the country," Karanja said.

"Then we are having more and more people fleeing in — not because they are insecure because of war — but they are looking for food."

Some aid agencies say the only solution is to find a way to feed starving Somalis in their own country.

"The Islamist militant group that controls much of Somalia appears ready to let that happen," Petrovich said from Nairobi. "After years of banning relief workers from delivering aid inside its borders, al-Shabab is asking them to return."

He said it was unlikely there would be any respite from the drought until the end of the year.

The drought has killed up to 90 per cent of livestock in some regions, Oxfam said. But poor governance is also to blame.

Most of Somalia has been wracked by civil war since its last government collapsed in 1990. Islamist rebels  currently hold most of southern Somalia. They banned most aid agencies from working there two years ago but rescinded the ban earlier this month.

Somalia is the most dangerous country in the world to work in, according to the UN's World Food Program, which lost 14 relief workers in the past few years. Looting and attacks on aid convoys occur frequently.

Oxfam criticized those policies in a report released Wednesday, but also said several rich European countries should do more to provide emergency aid. The aid agency says there is an $800-million shortfall in funds. They say $1 billion is needed to fund relief efforts through January.

Oxfam Regional Director Fran Equiza released a statement Wednesday saying it was "morally indefensible" that countries have only pledged $200 million in addition to long-running programs.

Canada has contributed roughly $22.35 million for humanitarian assistance to the region this year, with half the amount going toward helping out the Somalia refugee situation. Oxfam urged Canada Wednesday  to boost the total to $40 million.

International Co-operation Minister Bev Oda said the government is still assessing the situation before it decides whether to contribute more aid. Oda left Tuesday night for a nine-day tour through the region.

On Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said the U.S. will give another $28 million, on top of the $431 million in assistance it has given to the Horn of Africa this year.

The new U.S. funds won't be placed under restrictions implemented in 2009 that are designed to keep food and money from being stolen by Islamic militants.

Aid groups have called for the restrictions to be lifted entirely and say the rules have severely limited their operations. U.S. humanitarian contributions in Somalia fell from $237 million in 2008 to $29 million last year.

Britain has pledged $145 million in the past two weeks about 15 per cent of what is needed —and the European Union pledged around $8 million, with more expected in coming days.

Spain has promised nearly $10 million and Germany around $8.5 million but Oxfam said France has so far not pledged any more money and Denmark and Italy have said no significant new sums are available.

"There is no time to waste if we are to avoid massive loss of life," Equiza said in a statement. "We must not stand by and watch this tragedy unfold before our eyes. The world has been slow to recognize the severity of this crisis, but there is no longer any excuse for inaction."

Some donors, like the U.S., have expressed fears that aid might be diverted by Islamist groups. But Bowden said the UN had done its utmost to minimize the risks that aid might be diverted.

With files from CBC News