TOKYO (AP) -- UNICEF is seeking $18 million in relief funds for tens of thousands of children in North Korea it believes have been hit by the impact of a drought last year that heightened malnutrition and diarrhea caused by a lack of access to clean water.
Severe drought conditions last year in four agricultural provinces led to reduced food production and availability of safe drinking water, the U.N. agency said Tuesday.
It said there has been a 72 percent increase in diarrhea among children under the age of 5 in the drought-affected provinces and there are 25,000 children in need of immediate treatment of severe and acute malnutrition. To meet the need for help, the agency said it is calling for $8.5 million in assistance for nutrition, $5 million for clean water and sanitation and $4.5 million for health.
The health funds include "life-saving medication, immunization, prevention and treatment of diarrhea and pneumonia, therapeutic food, and access to safe drinking water," it said in a statement.
North Korean media called last year's drought the worst in a century. That claim has been hard to substantiate due to the country's restrictions on foreign access.
Though improvements have been seen in recent years, North Korea's food production is regularly affected by droughts or floods that expose the inefficiencies of its agricultural system, which is heavily reliant on foreign aid.
A devastating North Korean famine during the mid-1990s is believed to have killed hundreds of thousands of people. The exact number is disputed.
The UNICEF statement said that in August 2015 the North Korean government announced a more than 20 percent reduction in crop production compared with 2014. It said the average cereal ration was reduced, impacting the nutritional and health status of women and children.
"There is a critical need to address the immediate and underlying causes of under-nutrition in order to promote child survival and development," it said.