By Lesley Wroughton
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Aid officials warned on Wednesday that the famine in the Horn of Africa would escalate significantly if October rains fail to materialize, and cautioned U.S. lawmakers this was not the time to cut funding.
Some 12 million people across the drought-hit Horn of Africa region have been affected by the famine that has enveloped parts of Somalia, Kenya, Ethiopia and Djibouti.
The concerns about the spreading food crisis come as the House Appropriations Committee proposes further funding cuts for USAID in fiscal year 2012 by $488 million from last year's level and $705 million less than the Obama administration requested.
A so-called U.S. congressional super committee has been tasked with finding $1.5 trillion in additional budget savings over 10 years to reduce the bulging U.S. deficit, and there are worries foreign aid may be a casualty of some of the cuts.
"So far we have not been affected by our difficulties in terms of budget stringency," Donald Steinberg, deputy administrator at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), told reporters.
"If we do see the kinds of cuts in food assistance that are identified in the emerging legislation in Congress, it will have a significant impact," he added.
So far, the United States has provided about $570 million to fight the famine in the Horn of Africa.
Sam Worthington, head of InterAction, the largest alliance of U.S.-based aid and development agencies, said some lawmakers were so focused on budget cuts they ignored the long-term security and economic benefits to the United States of providing foreign aid.
"There is a disconnect between the conversation in Congress on the role of foreign assistance and what is happening in the Horn of Africa," he said, adding, "There is no way America can thrive if we pull back to our borders."
The World Food Program has said the aid group cannot reach more than 2 million Somalis in the worst-hit areas because the Islamist al Shabaab fighters have blocked access to most agencies.
Valerie Amos, U.N. under-secretary-general and emergency relief coordinator, said the number of Somalis fleeing into Ethiopia had declined since al Shabaab fighters withdrew from the capital Mogadishu at the weekend, opening the way for more aid to be delivered to famine victims in the city.
She said about 100,000 people had fled southern and central areas into Mogadishu, although cautioned that security situation was still a concern.
Amos said about $1.3 billion in additional funding was needed to help famine victims in the region and repeated that the famine was spreading and may soon engulf as many as six more regions in Somalia.
(Editing by Philip Barbara)