With the announcement of famine in South Sudan in February, the United Nations formally alerted the planet to the possibility of an unprecedented humanitarian crisis occurring in 2017 — four concurrent famines, something that has never been seen before. “By the time famine is declared, it’s too late, people are dying at a rate that we cannot keep up with,” says Scott Paul, senior humanitarian policy advisor for Oxfam America. “We have passed all of the signposts, red flags, and warning signs telling us that death is approaching. Famine means that we have already lost, people are dying.”
The causes of the conditions in the affected areas are complex. Parts of the Horn of Africa are entering their third successive year of crippling drought, causing food and water shortage issues across Somalia. While in Yemen, Nigeria, South Sudan, and Somalia, numerous conflicts have displaced millions and taxed already strained systems.
For Somalia, this could be the second time famine has been declared there in the last six years, and the third time in the last 26 years. An estimated 500,000 died in the last two while Sudan lost 70,000 during its 1998 famine. All of those pale though when compared to the estimated 3.5 million that died during the famine that accompanied the Second Congo War from 1998–2004.
“One of the biggest lessons we have learned from past famines is we needed an early warning system, something to alert us to potential threats,” says James Elder UNICEF regional chief of communication for Eastern and Southern Africa. “The Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET), pioneered by the United States government, allows us to get the word out earlier when we can hopefully stave off the worst before it occurs.”
Now that the word is out, numerous agencies, governments, and private organizations are mobilizing to meet the threat, but the work is slow. One of the biggest issues being faced is the perceived drawing back of the American aid. “The White House budget showed drastic cuts in foreign aid programs and roll backs on virtually all humanitarian programs,” says Paul. “Usually the U.S. leads the way, and so far Congress has showed they are not open to supporting the White House’s position, but the message that the budget proposal sent has caused global efforts to cool a bit.”
War seems to be the one uniting factor cited by FEWS NET causing issues. In Nigeria, the Boko Haram conflict has caused thousands to be facing food shortages. In Yemen, a continuing battle between Houthi forces, backed by Iran, and Hadi forces, backed by a Saudi-led coalition of which the United States is partnered, is threatening to cut off access to the major port of Hudaydah, from which the country receives almost 70 percent of their imports. “If the battle goes into the city, closing down the port, famine would begin almost immediately,” says Paul. “Yemen imports 90 percent of all their food.”
While conflict is a problem in Somalia, the main driver of the near famine conditions is a baked landscape coupled with severe shortage of drinkable water. For the third successive year the springtime storms that refill the riverbeds, and reservoirs have not materialized. “The landscape is scorched and littered with the bones and carcasses of dead camels, sheep and cattle, with people walking miles upon miles just to fill water canisters,” says Elder. “They were able to make it for two years of drought, but now that the third one is upon them their resources are depleted.” The desiccation of the landscape has rendered little clean water with people, and livestock, forced to share what they can find. Already there have been isolated cases of cholera that are ravaging small communities. With crop failures causing whole communities to relocate into camps for survival the threat of widespread cholera outbreaks—the main killer in the 2011 famine — is a very real threat.
But even while their world slowly falls apart around them there have been widespread stories of people pulling together and pooling resources to survive. Aid workers tell of one community sharing food with the next one even though they barely have enough themselves. When one farmer loses his herd his neighbor invites his family to move in together. In the cities, family members are sending what cash they can out into the bush to help relatives. “When people hear about famine the imagine individuals not working hard enough, only looking out for themselves, preying on others,” says Paul. “That could not be farther from the truth. All we see on the ground is generosity, teamwork, and help. They all are helping each other, unfortunately they have reached the end of their rope. They need help now.”
The news does not get much better for other parts of the African continent. Ethiopia, Kenya, Lesotho, Madagascar, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Swaziland, Tanzania, Zambia, and Zimbabwe are all facing drought conditions. The United Nations humanitarian chief Stephen O’Brien described the situations they are facing as the largest since the Second World War and said $4.4 billion is needed “to avert a catastrophe.”
So with close to 20 million people teetering on the edge of some form of danger, the world community is starting to take notice. Pope Francis called out for help, the World Health Organization is reaching out to governments, and the Internet is slowly spreading the word. Will it be in time?