'Widen gaze from Ukraine' to avert famine in Somalia, U.N. agency warns

LONDON (Reuters) - The world must "widen its gaze from the war in Ukraine" to prevent Somalia sliding into famine, the United Nations' children's agency said on Tuesday, warning only a third of the $250 million needed to stave off catastrophe had so far been raised.

Four consecutive rainy seasons have failed in the Horn of Africa - the worst drought spell in more than 40 years - and a fifth in October-December also looks likely to do so.

Drought has combined with a global rise in food and fuel prices, pushed up by the war in Ukraine, to hit millions across the continent, putting food staples out of reach for poor families and killing crops and livestock.

"If the world does not widen its gaze from the war in Ukraine and act immediately, an explosion of child death is about to happen in the Horn of Africa," Rania Dagash, deputy regional director of UNICEF, told a briefing.

Somalia has 386,000 children in urgent need of treatment for life-threatening malnutrition, numbers that are already higher than the 340,000 children who needed treatment in 2011, a year when famine killed hundreds of thousands of people, she said.

Donor funding has been generous but falls short of the $250 million needed, Dagash said.

"We have just a third of what we need this year. Our call to the international community, led by the G7 who will be meeting in Germany in a few weeks, needs to commit new, additional funding to save lives," she said.

Etienne Peterschmitt, Representative in Somalia for the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), another U.N. agency, said millions were malnourished and 213,000 people were in the most critical category, facing extreme lack of food.

Drought had dried up pastures and pushed up the price of food and water, he said. Around 3 million livestock have died since last year due to drought and disease. The southern Bay region was of particular concern.

Somalia is "on the brink of devastating and widespread hunger, starvation and death", he said, adding it was a "perfect storm for famine if action is not taken now".

Malnutrition made children more vulnerable to disease and forced destitute families to travel long distances on foot for treatment, Dagash said, citing an example of a pregnant woman walking 120 km (75 miles) for treatment for her 1-year-old twin boys.

"I've heard of children being buried along the roadside as their families make the desperate long trek to seek help."

(Reporting by Matthias Williams; Editing by Alex Richardson)