About one in four people in Somalia are at risk of severe hunger as a result of a drought that has hit the country ravaged by decades of war, after three seasons of poor rainfall, the UN warned on Monday.
The UN expects the crisis to worsen and 4.6 million people will need food aid by May 2022, as the country has not experienced three consecutive rainy seasons in more than 30 years.
Shortages of food, water and pasture have already forced 169,000 people from their homes, a number that could rise to 1.4 million within six months, the UN warned in a statement.
In recent years, natural disasters - not conflict - have been the main cause of displacement in Somalia, a country ranked among the most vulnerable to climate change.
"It is an unprecedented disaster that is coming," Adam Abdelmoula, the UN humanitarian coordinator for Somalia, told AFP, estimating that 300,000 children under the age of five were at risk of severe malnutrition in the coming months.
"They will die if we don't help them soon," he added, as the UN appealed for $1.5 billion to fund the crisis response.
Some 7.7 million people, nearly half of Somalia's population of 15.9 million, will need humanitarian assistance and protection in 2022, a 30% increase in one year, according to the UN.
At least seven out of ten Somalis live below the poverty line and the drought has destroyed already precarious sources of income --- loss of livestock, reduced harvests --- all combined with high inflation.
"The risk is so great that without immediate humanitarian assistance, children, women and men will start to starve in Somalia," said Somalia's Minister of Humanitarian Affairs and Crisis Management, Khadija Diriye.
The Somali government declared the drought a humanitarian emergency in November.
Drought and floods have also recently hit Kenya and South Sudan, killing livestock, destroying pastures and devastating crops.
Water and food shortages have raised fears of conflict between communities over resources.
Experts believe that the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events are increasing, attributing this to climate change.