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South Sudan prevents famine but world still facing historic hunger threat

Nyatoig Kuany holds 1-year-old Nyageka Mayak, who is suffering from acute malnutrition, outside a nutrition center in Ngop, Unity state, South Sudan. (Credit: Albert Gonzalez Farran/NRC)

The situation for the 20 million people at risk of famine in South Sudan, Somalia, Yemen and Nigeria remains dire, warned the U.N.’s chief humanitarian.

“Twenty million people remain at risk, and 10 million more could join them without sufficient funding and improved access,” U.N. humanitarian coordinator Stephen O’Brien warned.

There is some good news. South Sudan is no longer experiencing a famine and Somalia is no longer on the brink of famine, but this does not mean the countries are not still at risk. An estimated 1.7 million people in South Sudan are still on the brink of famine and more than 70,000 children in Somalia need urgent medical care, says the U.N.

Famine is declared in regions where acute malnutrition in children exceeds 30 percent and at least 2 people die per day in a population of 10,000 people. In other words, people are dying from hunger when famine is declared.

“When you declare a famine, bad things have already happened. People have already died,” World Food Program head economist Arif Husain explained to the New York Times in February.

U.N. officials credit the provision of emergency aid as helping in both countries. Food aid distributed by the World Food Program targets children and pregnant and nursing mothers because they are vulnerable to the effects of hunger.

“I urge caution, however, as this does not mean we have turned the corner on averting famine,” O’Brien said. “The situation remains extremely vulnerable in South Sudan. More people are on the brink of famine today than they were in February.”

At least 6 million people – half of South Sudan’s population – are experiencing some form of food insecurity and the number is growing.

There are now concerns that famine could emerge in the part of South Sudan that borders Ethiopia. To respond, humanitarian organizations must shift their resources towards the region and away from places where famine existed a few weeks ago leaving them vulnerable to a return to famine.

“There is no room for complacency,” UNICEF’s Manuel Fontaine said in a statement.

“The lives of millions of children are still hanging by a thread,” Fontaine said. “The crisis is far from over and we must continue to scale up our response and insist on unconditional humanitarian access, otherwise the progress made could be rapidly undone.”

The situation is no better for the other countries. There are 475,000 severely malnourished children in Nigeria and “pockets of famine-like conditions” in two states. In Yemen, some 400,000 children are severely malnourished and it is dealing with a cholera outbreak that infected more than 200,000 people and killed more than 1,000.

The humanitarian response in the four affected countries share the same two problems – lack of money and lack of humanitarian access in some regions. Less than 40 percent of the $4.9 billion needed to respond to the crises is funded, according to the U.N.

Lack of access in some parts makes it hard to know what is happening and difficult to provide aid to people in need. There are, significant parts of western South Sudan and southern Somalia are inaccessible by road, says the U.N. It warns that humanitarian conditions will continue to deteriorate if aid is not able to reach all parts of both countries.

Drought conditions remain an issue in some parts of East Africa. Returning rains hold promise for new crops and pose a risk of flash flooding and the spread of waterborne diseases. Cholera outbreaks were already reported in both countries.

“As three of the four countries enter the peak of their lean seasons, when food is even scarcer and conditions even harsher, we must make good on our commitment to act now before famine is declared,” O’Brien said.

“We still have a massive job to do to avert famine.”

South Sudan and Yemen are in the middle of civil wars. Fighting in South Sudan increased in recent months, leading to more attacks on humanitarian groups. In Yemen, the healthcare system is in disarray and aid groups struggle to fill the gap due to continued attacks on civilian sites, including hospitals.


About Author

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]