"They have kept famine outside of the door but nobody knows for how much longer," said Jens Laerke, spokesperson of the U.N. humanitarian office (OCHA).
"That people are dying from hunger, there's no doubt about it, but I cannot put a number on it," he told a news briefing in Geneva after the latest IPC analysis on Somalia came out.
The Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC), which sets the global standard for determining the severity of food crises, said its most acute level, "IPC Phase 5 Famine", had been temporarily averted but things were getting worse.
The IPC Acute Food Insecurity scale has a complex set of technical criteria by which the severity of crises are measured. Its Phase 5 has two levels, Catastrophe and Famine.
The Somalia analysis found that 214,000 people were classified in Catastrophe and that number was expected to rise to 727,000 from April, 2023 as humanitarian funding dropped off.
Catastrophe is summarized on the IPC website as a situation where starvation, death, destitution and extremely critical acute malnutrition levels are evident.
The IPC data showed 5.6 million Somalis were classified in Crisis or worse (Phase 3 or above) and that number would rise from April to 8.3 million -- about half the country's population.
The OCHA is appealing for $2.3 billion to respond to the crisis in Somalia, of which it has so far received $1.3 billion, or 55.2%.
The IPC had previously warned that areas of Somalia were at risk of reaching famine levels, but the response by humanitarian organizations and local communities had staved that off.
"The underlying crisis however has not improved and even more appalling outcomes are only temporarily averted. Prolonged extreme conditions have resulted in massive population displacement and excess cumulative deaths," it said.
In Somalia, where 3 million people have been driven from their homes by conflict or drought, the crisis is compounded by a long-running Islamist insurgency that has hampered humanitarian access to some areas.
A two-year drought has decimated crops and livestock across Horn of Africa nations, while the price of food imports has soared because of the war in Ukraine.
David Miliband, head of aid group the International Rescue Committee, said the underfunding of the appeal showed the world was not treating this as an urgent moment.
"The time for action is now in Somalia," he told Reuters in an interview, adding that what happened in 2011 should serve as a warning. "Stop waiting for the famine declaration," he said.