UN says 1.4 million African children at risk in famine: Why there’s still hope

More than a million children are at 'imminent risk' of death this year due to largely man-made famine in four countries, UNICEF said on Tuesday. 

Kate Holt/UNICEF/AP/File
A boy has his arm measured to see if he is suffering from malnutrition during a nutritional assessment at an emergency medical facility supported by UNICEF in Kuach, on the road to Leer, in South Sudan on Oct. 20, 2016.

Nearly 1.4 million African children are at "imminent risk" of death due to famine in four countries, according to the United Nations International Children's Fund.

UNICEF's announcement on Tuesday comes one day after famine was formally declared in parts of South Sudan, where 270,000 children are severely malnourished. According to the charity Save the Children, more than 1 million children in South Sudan alone are at risk of starving. 

"Time is running out for more than a million children," UNICEF executive director Anthony Lake said in statement. Around 185,000 children are at severe acute malnutrition in Somalia this year, although that number could rise, while 462,000 are dealing with severe acute malnutrition in Yemen and as many as 450,000 in Nigeria. 

But, Mr. Lake added, all hope is not lost: "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." 

The UN uses the word "famine" sparingly. "A famine can be declared only when certain measures of mortality, malnutrition and hunger are met. They are: at least 20 per cent of households in an area face extreme food shortages with a limited ability to cope; acute malnutrition rates exceed 30 per cent; and the death rate exceeds two persons per day per 10,000 persons," according to the UN. 

As all four countries face humanitarian crises as a result of ongoing conflicts, aid groups face significant challenges in reaching affected areas. South Sudan has been declared on the brink of famine twice in the past three years – but this time is different, experts say, because heavy fighting has cut off humanitarian access. Limited resources add to the difficulty of the situation. George Fominyen, the UN food program spokesman in South Sudan's capital, Juba, told CNN that unless it can obtain "a substantial injection of funds" – $205 million – within the next six months, the program's food supplies will run out. 

By declaring a famine, the UN is trying to raise awareness and funds.  

"[I]f sustained and adequate assistance is delivered urgently, the hunger situation can be improved in the coming months and further suffering mitigated," noted UN agencies in a report. 

Eradicating famine in these areas for good, however, will require more than just humanitarian assistance, aid workers say. A long-term solution to the problem will involve addressing – and ending – the ongoing conflicts and violence plaguing affected regions. 

"[The World Food Program] and the entire humanitarian community have been trying with all our might to avoid this catastrophe, mounting a humanitarian response of a scale that quite frankly would have seemed impossible three years ago," Joyce Luma, country director for the World Food Program in South Sudan, which has seen its facilities looted on several occasions by armed groups, told the Los Angeles Times. 

But without peace and security, she noted, "there is only so much that humanitarian assistance can achieve." 

While there has been an uptick in hunger and small famines in parts of Africa and other conflict-affected areas in recent years, the past 50 years have seen an overall decline in large-scale famines, giving experts some cause for optimism, as Eva Botkin-Kowacki reported for The Christian Science Monitor in June: 

Most famines are caused by war and repression, says Alex de Waal, executive director of the World Peace Foundation and author of an essay in the 2015 Global Hunger Index on armed conflict and hunger. In fact, he says, about 78 percent of all famines from 1870 to 2015 occurred in regions engaged in violent conflicts or under political repression. Increased international oversight and a shift away from totalitarian regimes have helped reduce famine-inducing conflicts....

International humanitarian law now prohibits the use of starvation as a weapon of war, whether intentionally depriving a population of food or inadvertently blocking access, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Furthermore, it is difficult for a famine to escalate unnoticed in a globalized society. People’s voices are heard on an international scale, infrastructure is in place to head off food shortages before they strike, and trade and transport of resources happen on a global scale.

"Conflicts make countries hungry and severe conflicts make them severely hungry," said Klaus von Grebmer, research fellow emeritus with the International Food Policy Research Institute. But, he told the Monitor, with peaceful resolution and good governance, over time, "hunger will be history." 

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