Food insecurity in Yemen, Somalia, South Sudan, and Nigeria is “the largest humanitarian crisis since the creation of the United Nations,” according to U.N. Under-Secretary-General and Emergency Relief Coordinator Stephen O’Brien in a briefing to the U.N. Security Council. The U.N. reports more than 20 million people in these countries are at risk of famine and request immediate assistance. O’Brien, returning from a trip to the affected regions, called on the U.N. Security Council and the international community to help avert the coming catastrophe.
According to U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres in February, “We are facing a tragedy; we must avoid it becoming a catastrophe. We need at least USD$4.4 billion by the end of March to avert a catastrophe. Despite some generous pledges, just US$90 million has actually been received so far–around two cents for every dollar needed.”
Recently, the U.N. officially declared famine in South Sudan. An Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IFSPC) report estimates 4.9 million people (42 percent of the population) have severe food insecurity, meaning inadequate access to food, and projects that the situation will continue to deteriorate. More than 1 million children are acutely malnourished, and approximately 100,000 people are at immediate risk of starving to death. Since civil war broke out in 2013, the U.N. estimates more than 2.1 million people have been internally displaced. The World Bank reports that the economy, heavily dependent on dwindling oil exports and disrupted by the conflict, is contracting. As of October 2016, the extreme poverty rate was 65.9 percent and increasing.
“I saw the impact humanitarians can have to alleviate suffering,” stated O’Brien, “I met an elderly woman with her malnourished grandson receiving treatment. I listened to women who fled fighting with their children through waist-high swamps to receive food and medicine.”
In Yemen, IFSPC estimates 17 million (60 percent of the population) are severely food insecure, an increase of 20 percent from the previous study six months prior. Armed conflict is damaging the economy and caused a 38 percent decrease in agricultural production. According to the U.N., 2 million people are internally displaced in Yemen, and the fighting is increasing.
“I met countless children, malnourished and sick,” says O’Brien. “I spoke with families who have become displaced…as their homes were destroyed by airstrikes. All of them told me three things: they are hungry and sick—and they need peace so that they can return home.”
More than half the population of Somalia needs assistance with 2.9 million people at risk of famine, and 1 million children acutely malnourished, according to the U.N. Drought and conflict with Al-Shabaab are fueling a refugee crisis. Before 2017, the last declared famine was in Somalia in 2011. Official estimates reported a quarter million deaths, half of which were children. A delayed response by the international community was indicated as a partial cause for the high death toll.
O’Brien reported, “What I saw and heard during my visit to Somalia was distressing—women and children walk for weeks in search of food and water. They have lost their livestock, water sources have dried up, and they have nothing left to survive on.”
The situation in Nigeria is the result of conflict with the terrorist group Boko Haram. This conflict has spilled into the neighboring countries of Cameroon, Chad, and Niger. The U.N. estimates there are 7.1 million people across these four countries facing severe food insecurity, including 515,000 children suffering from severe acute malnutrition. IFSPC designated Borno State in Nigeria as the worst affected region but is unable to adequately assess the situation due to inaccessibility.
O’Brien’s report calls on the international community to act quickly to restore access to food, ensure humanitarians have safe, full, and unimpeded access to people in need through financial support and exerting influence over belligerents, and to stop the fighting. “All four countries have one thing in common: conflict,” asserted O’Brien, “This means we—you—have the possibility to prevent—and end—further misery and suffering.”
O’Brien concludes, “We stand at a critical point in history…Without collective and coordinated global efforts, people will simply starve to death. The UN and its partners are ready to scale up. But we need the access and the funds to do more. It is all preventable. It is possible to avert this crisis, to avert these famines, to avert these looming human catastrophes.”