The Four Famines
Sep 05, 2017
In February 2017, the United Nation’s World Food Program (WFP) announced that as many as 20 million people in four countries were at severe risk from famines, and asked donor countries such as the United States to provide $4.9 billion this year to fund emergency food assistance to avert such a tragic toll. The four countries are Yemen, Somalia, South Sudan, and Nigeria. A recent poll conducted in the United States on behalf of the NGO International Rescue Committee found that 85 percent of Americans had not heard of this massive crisis, one that Ambassador Nikki Haley, U.S. representative to the United Nations, has referred to as ‘the largest food security emergency since World War II.”
These countries are different in many ways, but the main reason that their situation is so dire is the same--each country is mired in conflict. It is difficult if not impossible for farmers to raise and harvest crops and livestock in an environment where military force, whether terrorists, rebels, or government forces, threaten their lives as well as livelihoods. Those farmers who have not been forced to flee often are dealing with adverse weather, made worse by the effects of climate change.
Somalia has been a dysfunctional country riven by conflict for the longest among the four, stemming from a civil war that started in 1991 which has persisted more than a quarter century in one form or another. Today, the internationally recognized Somali government controls only the countryside around the capital of Mogadishu. To the south, government troops with help from African Union forces continue to battle Al Shabab, a group allied to Al Qaeda, while to the north, the Puntland and Somaliland regions have assumed some degree of autonomy. Drought has persisted in Somalia after the El Niño induced problems of a few years ago, but the famine there is due primarily to the armed conflict, driving many Somalis to flee their country or retreat to displaced person camps.
Although Nigeria has a fairly strong central government with considerable revenue from the country’s oil resources, the ongoing struggle with Boko Haram has subjected its citizens of Borno state in northeastern Nigeria to constant threat and increasing poverty since 2009, and many from the region have fled to elsewhere in the country or across borders into Cameroon, Chad, or Niger.
South Sudan, the world’s newest sovereign state, declared independence from Sudan in 2011. The country has been in conflict since 2013, when the country’s president fired the vice president, accusing him of plotting a coup d’etat. As many as 300,000 have been killed in the ensuing civil war, and at least one quarter of the population has been displaced.
Yemen erupted into conflict in 2015, when the Houthi tribe rebelled in support of the ousted President Saleh against the new government of President Hadi. The government forces have the support of Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, and the indirect, logistical support of the United States and other Western countries, while it has been reported that both the governments of Iran and Eritraea have provided support for the Houthis, an allegation that the Houthis deny. In some ways, this conflict has become a proxy war between Sunni Muslims in support of the Hadi government, and Shia Muslims in support of the Houthis. Access to assistance, especially on the rebel side, is hampered by restrictions imposed by the Hadi government.
Under the food security scale devised by a partnership of government agencies and NGO’s involved in humanitarian assistance in 2012, the crisis in these four countries has been designated as Phase 5, or famine level. For this designation to be made, the country in question must meet these three criteria:
- At least one in five households faces an extreme lack of food
- More than 30 percent of the population is suffering from acute malnutrition (wasting)
- At least two people out of every 10,000 are dying each day
Not everyone adversely affected by a famine dies of outright starvation. In many cases, a person’s acute malnutrition can make them more vulnerable to other illnesses and diseases, such as malaria, pneumonia, dysentery and cholera. The latter two are particular problems if clean water is also in short supply. In Yemen, for example, there have been 400,000 cases of cholera and 1,900 deaths from that disease in just the last three months. Even if they don’t die as a result of the famine, many of the people affected by malnutrition will have their health compromised for years if not their entire lifetimes.
Through July 2017, the U.S. government had provided $1.8 billion in assistance to these countries, through both commodity donations from the Title II Food for Peace program and cash-based mechanisms through the Emergency Food Security Program, both operated by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). However, donations to the WFP for this emergency assistance from all sources had only attained 51 percent of their $4.9 billion goal by early August.