More than 20 million people are facing starvation in Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen, and to avoid "catastrophe," the organization needs $4.4 billion for direct aid to those countries by July, UN Under Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs Stephen O'Brien told the Security Council.
"We stand at a critical point in history," he said, the BBC reported. "Already at the beginning of the year we are facing the largest humanitarian crisis since the creation of the United Nations…. Without collective and coordinated global efforts, people will simply starve to death. Many more will suffer and die from disease."
Following that immediate impact will be the repercussions of hungry children being unable to attend school, economic and social development processes slowing and reversing, instability due to displacement and "livelihoods, futures and hope lost," he said.
UNICEF reported last month that 1.4 million children were at risk of starving.
The crisis is greatest in Yemen, O'Brien reported, where 18.8 million people — the majority of the population — need some form of aid and more than 7 million are hungry. Three million people have become food insecure in Yemen since only the beginning of the year, he said, and more than 48,000 have fled fighting in the country since then.
Twelve million Yemenis need life-saving assistance and protection for 2017, which will cost $2.1 billion. So far, only 6% of that sum has been received, O'Brien said.
He blamed all sides in the conflict between the Saudi-backed government of Yemen and the Iran-backed Houthi rebels for failing the suffering population.
"[A]ll parties to the conflict are arbitrarily denying sustained humanitarian access and politicise aid," he said, and "they must be held accountable for the inevitable famine, unnecessary deaths and associated amplification in suffering that will follow."
In South Sudan, the situation is also dire, and is also a purely human folly, O'Brien said.
"The famine in South Sudan is man-made," he said, the Guardian reports. "Parties to the conflict are parties to the famine — as are those not intervening to make the violence stop."
More than 1 million children under the age of five in South Sudan are thought to be acutely malnourished, with 270,000 at risk of dying of starvation imminently if aid cannot be brought to them, he said. In total, more than 7.5 million people there need aid.
In Somalia, 6.2 million people are in need of aid, among them 2.9 million who need immediate assistance in order to avoid starvation. The crisis can be prevented, O'Brien said. But action needs to be taken, now.
"To be clear, we can avert a famine," he said. "We're ready despite incredible risk and danger… but we need those huge funds now."
In 2011, nearly 260,000 people died of hunger in Somalia.
In Nigeria, more than 2 million have been displaced during the government's nearly eight-year-long violent conflict with the Boko Haram militant group, and the UN estimates that 7 million need assistance there. Counted among them are 450,000 children who the agency says will face severe, acute malnutrition this year if they do not get help.
The extent of the humanitarian crisis in Nigeria cannot be fully known, as aid groups can't reach areas of the country controlled by Boko Haram.
UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres called last month for more money, saying only $90 million had been received so far — about two cents for every dollar of the $5.6 billion needed for aid this year.
There has been much chatter from the new US administration that funding for some UN programs will be dramatically cut. Contributions from US donors make up the greatest share by far of the budget of the World Food Program, one of the UN agencies tasked with combating famine.