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Why the UN declared a famine in Somalia (VIDEO)

The UN has officially declared a famine in parts of Somalia, the first time in 27 years it has done so in Africa. A severe drought has affected much of Africa's northeast.

An internally displaced Somali women waits for food aid at a camp in the capital Mogadishu, July 20. The United Nations on Wednesday declared famine in two regions of southern Somalia, and warned that this could spread further within two months in the war-ravaged Horn of Africa country unless donors step in.

Feisal Omar/Reuters

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Hundreds of thousands of people living in southern Somalia are now in the grip of the first famine in Africa in 27 years, the United Nations said on Wednesday. They are the worst-affected of 11 million people across Africa’s northeast, where at least two years with no rainfall has brought a drought that has killed livestock and robbed people of the ability to find food or water.

It was the first announcement of a famine since almost a million Ethiopians starved to death in 1984. The UN and most international agencies use a five-stage scale to classify famine, with phase 5 – "famine/human catastrophe" – occurring when at least two people die each day, more than 30 percent of people are so malnourished that they need urgent food to survive, and people can find less that four liters of water per day.

Rates of malnutrition in parts of southern Somalia are the highest in the world, with more than half of the population in need of urgent food, according to new UN figures.

Across the Horn of Africa, a third of children are so malnourished that they need special formula food to nurse them back from looming starvation.

“It is likely that tens of thousands of people will have already died [in southern Somalia], the majority of them children,” Mark Bowden, the head of the UN operation for Somalia, told a news conference in Nairobi, Kenya's capital.

“I’m not going to say it’s not going to deteriorate further – it will," he added. “Even if the world starts acting as it must, now, lives will be lost. But there are many more lives that can be saved if we see the level of response that is desperately needed.”

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