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by William M. Reilly

UNITED NATIONS, Feb. 22 (Xinhua) -- UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres on Wednesday appealed for 5.6 billion U.S. dollars -- 4.4 billion of it by the end of next month -- to prevent famine in northeast Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen where 20 million people face famine.

He was joined by UN Development Program Administrator Helen Clark, UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Stephen O'Brien, who is also the head of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), and on a video link Ertharin Cousin, executive director of the World Food Program (WFP), at a news conference here at UN Headquarters in New York.

Two counties of South Sudan have already met the criteria for a famine situation to be declared, Cousins said.

"Unless we act now, it is only a matter of time until it affects other areas and other countries," said Guterres. "We are facing a tragedy; we must avoid it becoming a catastrophe. This is preventable if the international community takes decisive action."

"The situation is dire," he said. "Millions of people are barely surviving in the space between malnutrition and death, vulnerable to diseases and outbreaks, forced to kill their animals for food and eat the grain they saved for next year's seeds."

Women and girls were disproportionately affected, said the UN chief, reflecting his concern at getting the UN system to reach gender parity.

"One of the biggest obstacles we face now is funding," he said, adding that humanitarian operations in these four countries require more than 5.6 billion U.S. dollars this year.

"We need at least 4.4 billion U.S. dollars by the end of March to avert a catastrophe," Gutteres said.

"Despite some generous pledges, just 90 million U.S. dollars has actually been received so far -- around two cents for every U.S. dollar needed," Guterres said. "We are in the beginning of the year but these numbers are very worrying."

O'Brien, the UN under-secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, said the threatened 20 million victims are "facing famine or risk of famine or starvation over the next six months and that includes 1.4 million children who are currently at imminent risk of death from severe, acute malnutrition. The point is ... these famines can be averted if we act now."

"The lesson from the 2011 Somalia famine was by the time that we declared famine, broadly, as a world, half of those who died already had died," he said. "This is why we are sounding the alarm now so that we can avert the catastrophe."

There were 260,000 fatalities by the time the world organization declared the Somalia famine over in mid 2012.

"We already have in place many of the aid workers and agencies and implementing partners both at national and international levels and working in and through governments, where they have that capacity to respond, to make sure that we are averting what we can see is a famine through these many causes -- different as they are -- but with the common theme of conflict," O'Brien said.

"There is a total commitment on the part of development partners to work extremely closely with OCHA and the humanitarian actors," said UNDP chief Clark. "Clearly the primary objective here is to save lives in the face of extremely dire circumstances and part of saving lives is building resilience for the future."

"A lot is underway," she said. "A lot of what we are doing is being retargeted, reorganized. Everything is being scaled up."

To explain what resilience being scaled up in South Sudan, she said as an example that such agencies as the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), UNDP, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), WFP, and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) are working together "on a comprehensive approach, stabilization and recovery, access to basic social services, reinvigorating livelihoods locally and enhancing the capacity of local governments to deliver the services they need to deliver."

On the video link, WFP Chief Cousins said that in each of these four countries "plans are in place, the people are prepared to perform the work that is necessary. What we need are the financial resources ... and access."

"This is a very different situation than even in Somalia than we were in, in 2011," she said. "In Somalia today as compared to 2011 you have a functioning government. The markets are functioning. What we need are the resources to make sure that we can give access to the food that is available to those who have suffered from two years of drought and also the meteorologists are telling us there is that the next rains will also fail."

"Acting now, before we reach the height of the lean season in each one of these countries will insure our ability to provide the support that is necessary," Cousins said. "What we all see on the horizon ... is a famine in each one of these countries if we fail to act."

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