We Must Stop Famine Before it Starts | Opinion

Famine was almost a thing of the past. It has been nine years since famine was declared on the country level in Somalia in 2011. Before that, you'd have to go back 19 years to find another famine on such a large scale.

Famine is a tragedy, but also a technical designation—one we hope to never use. An official declaration of famine means one in five families face extreme food shortages, more than one child in three is dangerously malnourished and six out of every 10,000 people die from hunger each day. Consider what it would mean for you to face those odds.

Until recently, global hunger was on the decline, thanks to investments in agriculture, health and nutrition education, and increasingly effective humanitarian aid. After 2011, new early warning systems were developed to help predict famine and prevent mass tragedy.

By and large, those approaches have worked—until now.

Today four countries are on the brink of famine: Yemen, Burkina Faso, South Sudan and Nigeria. This isn't inevitable. Famine is always man-made.

The top driver of extreme hunger is conflict, which has combined with climate change and COVID-19 to leave 270 million people around the world suffering from acute hunger. Many are in places that are almost out of reach.

Yemen's six-year civil war has caused the world's worst humanitarian crisis: 24 million people—80 percent of the population—require emergency aid. The economy has shattered, critical infrastructure has been destroyed, food prices have soared and humanitarian aid is often blocked or seized.

Recently, a Yemeni mother told our health center staff, "I lost my work and all sources of income due to the conflict and face difficulties getting food and clean water and paying for medical treatment for my family. I never stop looking for support from my neighbors to feed my children, but it is so hard to get enough."

Yemen isn't alone. Violence by armed groups in Burkina Faso has displaced 1 million people in just two years, restricting movement, closing markets and leaving 3.3 million people facing acute food insecurity.

Conflict and the climate crisis form a vicious circle that serves as a flywheel for hunger. South Sudan's White Nile Valley now regularly experiences severe flooding and drought that kills livestock and destroys crops and infrastructure. As one man told us, "My mat, mosquito net, bed sheets, my clothes were all taken by the flood. Now, I just depend on the river. If there is a fish I can catch, I eat. If not, I stay hungry."

The climate crisis is forcing pastoralists to alter their traditional migration routes, contributing to conflict over increasingly scarce resources. Currently, 6.4 million people in South Sudan face acute food insecurity.

COVID-19's economic impacts have compounded the effect of conflict and climate change throughout the world, hitting Nigeria especially hard. As Africa's largest economy dependent on oil exports, pandemic-related slowdowns greatly reduced global demand, causing prices to drop.

Famine
Ethiopian refugees who fled fighting in Tigray province are pictured at the Um Raquba camp in Sudan's eastern Gedaref state, on November 19, 2020. ASHRAF SHAZLY/AFP via Getty Images

Nigeria's economy contracted and the World Bank predicts the country's worst recession in 40 years. Border closures have also hurt the agricultural sector. During the pandemic many farmers couldn't access seeds to plant, imported food became scarce and prices nearly doubled. As a result of this and ongoing conflict, an estimated 3 million people in Nigeria's northeast face daunting nutrition insecurity.

The good news is that we can effectively slow, and perhaps even stop, the drivers of famine.

There is growing momentum within the U.N. to address hunger as a weapon of war. I urge the U.N. Security Council to pressure all parties in conflict to agree to ceasefires that, at the very least, allow humanitarian assistance to reach those who need it most. Efforts to combat climate change are back on the national policy agenda in the U.S., and I expect to see real action in the lead up to the global Climate Change Conference meeting in November. I'm also hopeful that COVID-19's health and economic disruptions will diminish as vaccine rollouts pick up speed.

Longer-term hunger prevention requires an ongoing presence to identify and address complex risk factors, watch for early warning signs and take immediate action when necessary. To enable an even more rapid and effective response to rising hunger, we must create stronger safety nets and improve data and information on food insecurity.

Gaining access to conflict zones requires both public advocacy and behind-the-scenes diplomacy. When armed groups deny humanitarian access, it should always trigger political action. Most importantly, we must stand up for a world that guarantees the basic human right of access to food.

To be clear, famine hasn't been declared in any of the countries previously mentioned and perhaps never will be. But we cannot wait for an official designation to act—not when people are dying of hunger every day.

To a mother concerned about her severely malnourished child, it doesn't matter if the technical definition of famine has been met or if the cause is conflict, climate change or COVID-19. The only thing that matters is saving her child's life.

With all of humanity's progress, there is no excuse for deadly hunger in 2021. We must come together so that one day famine will be a distant memory.

Dr. Charles Owubah is the CEO of Action Against Hunger.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.