The United Nations on Wednesday officially declared a state of famine in parts of southern Somalia.

Nearly half of the Somali population, or 3.7 million people, are now in crisis, of whom about 2.8 million people are in the south, U.N. officials said in Nairobi.

Famine is declared when acute malnutrition rates among children exceed 30 per cent or when more than two people per 10,000 die per day for lack of food. It can also be declared if people are not able to access food and other basic necessities.

Malnutrition rates in Somalia, still plagued by massive civil unrest, remain the highest in the world, with peaks of 50 per cent in certain areas in the south, according to Mark Bowden, the U.N.’s humanitarian coordinator for the country.

In the regions of southern Bakool and Lower Shabelle, acute malnutrition rates exceed 30 percent, with under-five deaths exceeding 6 per 10,000 per day in some areas, he said.

Tens of thousands of people had already died, most of them children, he said.

“If we don’t act now, famine will spread to all eight regions of southern Somalia within two months, due to poor harvests and infectious disease outbreaks,” he said.

He appealed to the international community to raise 300 million dollars in the next two months to combat the spreading famine.

“Every day of delay in assistance is literally a matter of life or death for children and their families in the famine affected areas,” Bowden said.

Consecutive droughts have plagued the country in the last few years while the ongoing conflict has made it extremely difficult for agencies to operate and access communities in the south of the country.

Over 166,000 Somalis have fled the country to seek assistance and refuge in neighbouring countries, with over 100,000 of those fleeing since May.

“More than ever, Somali people need and deserve our full attention,” Bowden said. “At this time of crisis, we must make exceptional efforts to support Somalis wherever they are in need and expect that all parties will do the same.”