Act now to address and prevent famine in four countries

Wednesday, 15 March 2017 15:57 GMT

Internally displaced Somali women sit with their children inside their general shelter at the Al-cadaala camp in Somalia's capital Mogadishu, March 8, 2017. REUTERS/Feisal Omar

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Allowing famine to unfold is a choice; we must make the choice to stop it

The life of seven-month-old Sundus hangs by a thread in central Yemen. She has known little but hunger and sickness for most of her short life. She is caught in the vicious cycle of malnutrition and disease alongside millions of other innocent women, girls, boys and men because of a war that is not her own.

The world is already facing the largest humanitarian crisis since the end of the Second World War, with almost 130 million people in 33 countries in need of life-saving humanitarian assistance and protection. But now, Sundus is one of 20 million people in north-eastern Nigeria, South Sudan, Somalia and Yemen who are experiencing starvation, famine, or the risk of famine.

In north-eastern Nigeria, over 5 million people are severely food insecure and d 450,000 children are suffering from severe acute malnutrition. In the worst-affected and least accessible areas of Borno and Yobe states,  55,000 people face famine-like conditions.

In South Sudan, 100,000 people are already facing famine, with another 1 million on the brink.

In Somalia, largely due to consecutive and severe droughts, there are worrying similarities to the famine of 2011, when more than a quarter million people died – half of them before the famine was officially declared. Food prices are rising, animals are dying, and close to 3 million people cannot meet their daily food needs.

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Yemen is facing the largest humanitarian crisis in the world with a third of the country – almost 19 million people – requiring humanitarian and protection assistance. More than 7 million people need urgent food assistance. With health facilities destroyed and damaged, diseases are sweeping through the country. Some 462,000 children are suffering from severe acute malnutrition and a child dies every 10 minutes of preventable causes.

The warning call and appeal for action by the Secretary-General of 22 February 2017 cannot be understated. While the specificities of each context are complex and unique, all four countries have one thing in common: man-made conflict or insecurity. This means we have the possibility to prevent – and end – further misery and suffering. It will take all of us to do so. Without collective and coordinated global efforts, people will simply starve to death. Many more will suffer and die from disease. Children will be stunted and forced out of school. People’s livelihoods, and their hope for the future will be lost. Development gains will be reversed. Many more will be displaced and move in search of survival, creating ever more instability across entire regions.

Across all four countries, the UN and partners are engaged in large-scale operations, with strategic, coordinated plans, and strong leadership and teams. In 2016, more than 2.3 million people in north-eastern Nigeria received food and agriculture assistance, while 1.1 million received water, sanitation and hygiene support. Around 5 million people in South Sudan received aid last year through a network of more than 130 operational partners across the country. We reached more than 1 million people in Somalia with food and livelihoods support. In Yemen, 120 partners are already delivering life-saving assistance and protection to nearly 6 million people every month in all 22 governorates.

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Yet, sadly, this is not enough and more needs to be done. Given the funding, and the access,  we are ready to extend the operations further.

Humanitarian partners urgently need $4.4 billion to respond to and avert famine and save thousands of lives. The money will translate into malnutrition treatment programmes for children and adults, emergency food aid deliveries, livestock support, health interventions, clean water, sanitation and hygiene support, and cash transfers for millions of the most vulnerable people. Time is running out. So far, we have received only $429 million of this amount. 

Only combined with access will the funding be enough to avert the worst. In all four countries, aid workers face enormous challenges in delivering assistance due to ongoing violence, insecurity and bureaucratic impediments. Parties to conflicts are also arbitrarily denying sustained humanitarian access and politicizing aid. These parties claim to represent people, yet their conduct against international humanitarian and human rights law perpetuates and increases the suffering. If they don’t change their behaviour now, they must be held accountable for the inevitable famine, death and suffering that will follow. This also applies to States and Governments who have influence over warring parties. I appeal to their conscience to exert pressure on the parties to conflict to allow for safe, full and unimpeded humanitarian access so we can reach those in need.

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We are working hand-in-hand with development partners to marry the work of immediate life-saving with longer-term sustainable development. This will require a new way of working, including more risk tolerance, earlier engagement and more flexible and context-driven programming.. Some donors are already supporting such efforts.. For instance the World Bank Group is significantly scaling up its response in some of these countries, both with short and long-term support to meet immediate needs and reduce them in the future.

However, the gains we make will only take hold if Governments commit to political solutions to bring an end to the complex and bloody conflicts that have destroyed millions of people’s lives across each of these countries. To continue on the path of war and military conquest is to guarantee failure, humiliation and moral turpitude.

It is possible to address and avert these famines, and to prevent human catastrophe on a massive scale but we must act quickly and not wait until it is too late. Allowing  famine to unfold is a choice; we must make the choice to stop it. To fail to do so would be a stain on our collective moral conscience. We have no time to lose.

Stephen O'Brien is the Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator.