NAIROBI Australia urged the international community Sunday to rally behind the U.N. relief effort in the famine-struck Horn of Africa or risk hundreds of thousands of people starving to death.
Governments worldwide and the United Nations have faced criticism for their slow response to the severe drought, the worst in the region for decades, affecting some 11 million people across Somalia, Ethiopia, Kenya and Djibouti.
The U.N. World Food Program (WFP) has said it cannot reach more than 2 million Somalis facing starvation in areas controlled by Islamist militants, who imposed a food aid ban in 2010 and have regularly threatened relief groups.
"There is no uniformity in the security situation on the ground. We need to cut the U.N. some slack," Australia's Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd told a media conference in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi.
The United Nations has declared a famine in two regions of southern Somalia and warned it could spread further afield as people contend with the triple shock of drought, rising food prices amid critical shortages and conflict.
Failure by the international community to provide support amid a raging insurgency across much of southern Somalia would mean the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people, mostly children, Rudd said.
"We either stand back, sit on our hands and do nothing and wait for the perfect world to arrive. Or we get in there and we work now. This will be a complex, dangerous and risky task," said Rudd, Australia's former prime minister.
WFP was among several groups ordered out of rebel-held areas last year who were now preparing to return.
The agency's executive director, Josette Sheeran, said it had received pledges worth $220 million in the past few weeks.
But she said WFP still faced a gap of $360 million between now and the end of the year as it mulls food airdrops into rebel-held parts of Somalia.
Sheeran was speaking a day after visiting Kenya's Dadaab refugee camp, the world's biggest, where she met Somali mothers forced to abandon children too weak to flee across the porous border.
Medics at Dadaab, she said, were seeing a rise in numbers of level 4 malnutrition among children -- a level at which only 40 percent are expected to survive.
Malnutrition among children under five can cause stunting.
"In the Horn (of Africa) we could lose a generation. Those that survive could be affected deeply," she said.
Aid groups fear many in Eritrea, which neighbors Somalia and Ethiopia, could also risk starvation. The Red Sea state is one of the world's most secretive nations, ruled by a reclusive leader.