Famine threatens the lives of 1.4 million children, U.N. warns

Women wait with children to be examined and possibly give supplementary food in a mobile clinic run by UNICEF during a Rapid Response Mission (RRM) in the village of Rubkuai, Unity State, South Sudan, February 16, 2017. (Credit: UNICEF/Modola)

As many as 1.4 million children in Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen are at risk of dying from famine, according to UNICEF.

U.N. agencies are appealing for emergency support to help tens of millions of people suffering from hunger across the four countries, before they descend into famine. Famine was declared in parts of South Sudan on Monday. Formally invoking the world famine for the northern-central part of the country means that hunger is starting to kill people and will continue if nothing is done.

“Time is running out for more than a million children,” UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake said in a statement. “We can still save many lives. The severe malnutrition and looming famine are largely man-made. Our common humanity demands faster action. We must not repeat the tragedy of the 2011 famine in the Horn of Africa.”

Famine warnings in these four countries are not new. U.N. agencies, governments and other groups have been voicing concern for months. The similarities to the 2011 famine mentioned by Lake are uncanny. Reports by the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS-NET) in late 2010 predicted famine conditions. FEWS-NET issued more than 70 warnings before the famine was declared in July 2011.

By then it was too late for tens of thousands of people in the Horn of Africa. An estimated 260,000 people died, primarily in Somalia. The death toll was high due to the slow international response and the inability to reach people in areas of Somalia controlled by the Islamist militants al-Shabab. The international community declared that it would not make the same mistakes again.

“The declaration of famine in parts of South Sudan is a man-made tragedy, and we are running out of time to avoid it getting worse,” said Oxfam America’s Senior Humanitarian Policy Adviser Noah Gottschalk in a statement. “In 2011 after the famine that hit Somalia, the world said ‘never again.’ The declaration of famine in South Sudan reflects the collective failure to heed the countless warnings of an ever-worsening situation.”

However, six years later the same story is playing out. Reports from late 2016 by FEWS-NET showed low rainfall during Somalia’s typical rainy season. Similar reports by the group and others in South Sudan, Nigeria and Yemen show that already-high rates of hunger may tip toward famine. In fact, the specter of famine has loomed over the countries for a few years now.

Conflict is a common thread that ties together the countries of concern. More than 270,000 children are severely malnourished in South Sudan. Civil war broke out in the country after a falling out between the president and vice president. Fighting stopped for a short period after a peace deal, but the power-sharing agreement faltered and now there are warnings of ethnic cleansing.

Yemen is also suffering from conflict after the rebel overthrow of its government two years ago. International support for both fighting sides have sustained the conflict and Yemenis are suffering in terrible living conditions. As a result, the severe acute malnutrition rate rose by nearly 200 percent since 2014, leaving some 462,000 children at risk.

Nigeria is struggling to defeat Boko Haram. Fighting between the group and government forces displaced hundreds of thousands from their homes, many into neighboring countries. The number of children suffering from severe acute malnutrition is expected to reach 450,000 this year.

Somalia is still dealing with al-Shabab but it is more stable than it was in 2011. Recent elections saw the peaceful transition of power to president Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed. Some areas of concern are in the south, where al-Shabab has control. Parts of the north also experience high rates of hunger, leaving more than 6 million Somalis acutely food insecure. Severe acute malnutrition is projected to rise over the next few months, affecting some 270,000 children.

Aid groups and U.N. agencies responding to the crises are struggling stay ahead of the problem. Pressure is building on donor governments to provide the financial and technical assistance that will ensure that famine is avoided. Problem is, nobody knows what the international community will do.

“It is unclear how President Trump’s ‘America First’ mantra will shape the response this time, though his administration’s approach to tackling Islamist militancy and apparent frustration at the resilience of al-Shabab may give some clues,” Rob Bailey, research director at the Chatham House, wrote in Newsweek. “Nor is it clear how other donor governments will respond to the famine warning. Europe is preoccupied with its own political and economic concerns, whilst at the international level multiple humanitarian disasters compete for limited donor attention.”

It casts uncertainty over the 1.4 million children at risk of dying from hunger. The world knows that an emergency is imminent, but it may not be equipped to act fast enough to prevent it from happening.

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.