updated 9/20/2008 4:11:15 AM ET 2008-09-20T08:11:15

Nearly 17 million people in the Horn of Africa urgently need food, up from 9 million in early 2008, as crippling drought, soaring food prices and conflict take an increasing toll on the region, the U.N. humanitarian chief said Friday.

John Holmes said the humanitarian emergency hasn't yet escalated to a famine, but he warned that if donors don't provide $716 million very quickly the Horn could return to the famine situations of the 1980s and the 1990s.

"The overall food security situation in the Horn of Africa — which includes parts of Ethiopia, Somalia, Djibouti, Eritrea, Kenya, and Uganda — is getting even more serious than it was before because of the combined effects of drought and rising food prices, and in some places conflict," he told a news conference.

"We reckon there are nearly 17 million people in this region who are now in urgent need of food and other emergency humanitarian assistance," including 3 million children, Holmes said. "This number could even rise as the drought deepens and the hunger season continues."

Early this year, the U.N. estimated that 9 million people in the Horn of Africa were in urgent need of food.

'Not too late'
Holmes said the situation has worsened because the region is experiencing perhaps "the worst effects" of soaring food prices, a third year of drought, and conflicts in Somalia, parts of Ethiopia and elsewhere.

"It is not too late to avert this catastrophe, but we do need some urgent funding now," he said. "Otherwise the situation is going to become even more catastrophic than it is today."

Holmes said he was writing to ministers in donor nations to make "a strong, passionate plea" for immediate help.

The U.N. estimates it needs $1.4 billion to help the 17 million people in need until the end of the year — but it only has $684 million. That means it desperately needs $716 million to cover needs from October to December, he said.

"We do need extra resources very quickly indeed if we are to avoid going back to famine situations," Holmes said. "The situation is critical. We need more intervention now. We need more help."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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