12/05/2017 07:19 BST | Updated 12/05/2017 07:19 BST

Still Time To Avert Famine In Somalia - But We Must Act Now

This week, I was in Somalia, and the effects of drought were clear. What should have been green was dry with poor rains offering no respite.

Some rain is now falling, but it is too little too late. Authorities told me that 60-70% of livestock in some areas had already died and I met families who had trekked days to find food and water.

Somalia is on the brink of famine - the second in seven years - and I hope that the meetings at the London Somalia Conference will do all in their power to help avert it. The London Somalia Conference will focus on security, peace and prosperity, crucial for the future of the country. However, at this moment in time, ensuring children and parents have access to food, water, shelter, healthcare and emergency aid is essential for their very survival.

While in Somalia, I spoke to many mothers visiting our mobile health clinics and all of them told me the same thing. 'My child is ill, and I don't have the food to give them or the medicines I need, our goats and camels have died and I don't know what to do'. When asked what they wanted for their children however, they all had hope that they can have a better life. Beyond the immediate sustenance required to ensure their child's survival they all said the same thing. 'Education'.

A woman and her child forced to move because of drought walk towards a mobile medical unit. © UNICEF/UN056035/Holt

We know from the devastating 2011 Somalia famine that we cannot wait for a famine declaration to take action. By the time it is announced - if it is announced - untold numbers of children will have already died. In the 2011 famine, some 260,000 people died - half of them young children and half of them before the famine was officially declared. If we wait until famine is declared it will already mean that we would have a situation where, if it were to occur in a city with the population of London, nearly 2000 people, mostly children, would be dying every day from famine related illness. It would be too late.

The time for action is now. Already indicators are that the situation is worsening. Earlier this month, Unicef announced that the projected number of children who are or will be acutely malnourished has shot up by 50 per cent since the beginning of the year to 1.4 million, including over 275,000 who have or will suffer life-threatening acute malnutrition in 2017.

Severely malnourished children are nine times more likely to die of killer diseases like cholera, diarrhea and measles, which are also spreading. In fact, during the 2011 famine, the main causes of death among children were diarrhea and measles.

A medical practitioner measures a child for severe acute malnutrition at a mobile clinic. © UNICEF/UN057372/Holt

More and more people are now on the move in search of food and water. Since November 2016, some 615,000 people the vast majority women and children have been displaced by the drought. The journeys they make are perilous. They are often robbed or worse, both on the way to and in camps, and while there have been reports of sexual abuse, many women stay silent because of the stigma associated with rape.

The drought has also forced some 40,000 children to stop attending school, as their families migrate or pull them out to help to search for food and water. There are reports of more children living on the streets, and of displaced children being recruited into armed groups.

Talking to some former Al Shabab child soldiers in a Unicef reintegration centre, they told me how their harsh living conditions led them to being recruited by this proscribed terrorist group. They saw no future, so they didn't resist when they were given a gun. With the help of Unicef they are now training to be businessmen, teachers, tradesmen and they are playing sport, laughing and being children. All because they have hope of a better future.

A child stands in front of the camel he looks after. His family have lost nearly three quarters of their livestock because there is no grass for them to graze. © UNICEF/UN057358/Holt

Unlike 2011, when the funding came too late, this year, some donors like DFID in the UK, have come forward. Not enough to meet all of the substantial the needs, but far more than 2011. This early planning and funding has made a huge scale up of assistance possible.

As a result, UNICEF has set up and supported 330 new nutrition centres, bringing the total to 837 across the country. These new centres have made it possible to treat 56,054 children suffering from severe acute malnutrition since the beginning of the year, almost double the number of admissions over the same period in 2016, with a 92 percent recovery rate. We have also provided more than one million people affected by drought with safe water, up from 300,000 in January.

In addition to the life-saving assistance needed, I also hope that at this conference we will see the international community, and the Somali Government come together behind a comprehensive plan to achieve peace and stability in Somalia. It will not be easy, but without genuine ambition and commitment from those with the influence and power to make a difference, real change will not be possible. If we are to stop this type of famine situation occurring in the future we will need a real commitment to peace and stability, which will afford us the access we need to help normal Somali citizens survive and thrive. Without this, given the increasingly frequent droughts we are seeing, this will happen again.

More also needs to be done immediately however. UNICEF's appeal has a 47 percent gap in funding. Children and their families are depending on us. We can save lives in Somalia. But we need to do more and faster to prevent this crisis becoming a catastrophe. We hope those at the London Somalia Conference are behind us and behind every child in Somalia, as they deserve better a better life than they have today.