International aid agencies say that almost one-half million people in southern Somalia are threatened with famine because of continued drought. The aid organizations say donors must step in to avert what they call a major loss of life.

International aid agencies say there has been a total harvest failure in southern Somalia because the rains did not come in May. The fields, they say, are bare and grain stores are empty.

Reports say thousands of people are on the move in search of food and water. Some villages are totally empty.

Aid officials say attendance levels at the only children's feeding center in the Gedo region of Somalia have increased five-fold in the past two months.

Relief officials note that it is two years since Somalia was last threatened by famine. Jeremy Hopkins, who works for the World Food Program (WFP) in Baidoa, says people have not yet recovered from that previous emergency.

"It is a recurring problem," he said. "I think you have to look at it in the context of the civil war - and understand that each year that there is a crop failure their assets, which is to say their livestock and other things they can sell decrease. So each year it's harder and harder for them to get through to the next harvest that succeeds. The situation is deteriorating and we are extremely concerned about it."

Somalia has been torn by clan fighting since leader Mohamed Siad Barre was ousted in 1991. Since then, heavily armed militias ruled by warlords have divided the country. Last year, exiled Somali leaders established an interim government at a peace conference in neighboring Djibouti, but many clan leaders refuse to recognize the new authority.

In the present humanitarian crisis, the World Food Program is trying to get people to stay in their villages so that they are ready for the next planting season. The WFP says emergency food is being supplied via mother and child health centers and food for work programs.

Aid officials say food stocks will soon be exhausted. WFP launched an appeal in July but it says it has received only 20 per cent of the supplies it needs.

Aid agencies, under the umbrella of the Somalia Aid Coordination Body, the SACB, are now appealing for immediate aid to avert a major humanitarian crisis.

Mr. Hopkins of the WFP warns people could start dying of famine by early next year.

"It has had a poor response, which is why SACB has put out another appeal for 40,000 tons, which we desperately need otherwise we are going to run short of food in the next few weeks and months," he said. "I would say by end of November we will be in trouble. If the food doesn't come through, I think by some time early next year we may start to see famine related deaths, which is something we desperately want to avoid."

Aid officials warn that if the current rains fail, as widely expected, the threat of famine in southern Somalia will be even more acute.