Inside the “perfect storm” of famine

Like the four countries facing extreme hunger crises today, the famine that gripped Ethiopia from 1983 to 1985 struggled for attention until it was far too late.There was conflict. There had been years of consecutive drought – similar to Somalia now. The government spent its money on fighting, not aid. The rich world eventually reacted, with Bob Geldof and Live Aid at the forefront of a public funding campaign. But access in a time of war was hard. By 1984, 200,000 mostly starving Ethiopians had died, young children often the first to go. The final toll was closer to one million.More than three decades later, the stakes are arguably even higher. A badly strained humanitarian system finds itself facing not one but four vast challenges. In all, more than 20 million people are at risk of starvation and famine across South Sudan, Somalia, Yemen, and northeastern Nigeria.Much has been learnt since 1984: the value of building resilience before crises arrive, the role climate change plays, the imperative of early conflict prevention, the importance of cash aid, the need to prioritise water as well as food.

Nonetheless, the goal posts for those struggling to reach the world’s most vulnerable and provide them with life-saving assistance have shifted far downfield. Why?The simple answer is conflict. It’s the one factor that afflicts all four famine-facing regions listed above. And that’s not to mention how the effects of war in places like Iraq and Syria, including the mass migration to Europe, have drained valuable humanitarian resources and donor dollars.As Nancy Lindborg,

president of the US Institute of Peace, pointed out in testimony last week before the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, “humanitarian assistance flows have shifted from 80 percent of global aid going to victims of natural disasters to now 80 percent going to assist victims of violent conflict.”Unfortunately, Lindborg’s remarks may well have fallen on deaf ears: President Donald Trump’s administration is threatening draconian cuts to the State Department’s budget, affecting US funding for everything from UN peacekeeping to the United Nations Development Programme and UNICEF.

And garnering the attention required to generate the $4.4 billion the UN says is required by July to stave off a humanitarian “catastrophe” is only part of the battle. Devising the correct response strategy and securing the necessary access in complex and fragmented war zones is likely to be even harder.

These four famines or near-famines do have similarities, but they also have different origins, different trajectories, and therefore different needs. Local factors are at play, with each country prone to its own combination of flaring conflict, weak governance, poor infrastructure, and failing markets.

Famine hasn’t officially been declared (yet) in Yemen, but, with more hungry people than any of the other big three areas at risk, this feels rather like a technicality.

A reminder of the UN definition: At least 20 percent of households in an area with extreme food shortages and a limited ability to cope; acute malnutrition rates exceed 30 percent; and a death rate exceeding two persons per day per 10,000 persons due to lack of food. As Somalia found out in 2011-2012, famine doesn’t need to have been declared for many to die. Nearly half its starvation deaths occurred before it met this statistical definition, including almost 30,000 children in just three months.

Right now, 17 million of Yemen’s overall population of 27.4 million are classified as food insecure and 3.3 million people, including 2.1 million children, have acute malnutrition. Some half a million children are even worse off – with severe acute malnutrition – UNICEF counts this as a 200 percent increase since 2014.

Yemen’s crisis is entirely man-made (UN relief chief Stephen O’Brien said as much inrecent comments). As such, to the few paying attention, it’s been like watching a car crash in slow motion.

Even before fighting began two years ago, Yemen was a poor country with a chronic hunger problem. But it was, for the most part, manageable: Aid agencies could move about the country with relative ease; most families could buy their meals at market. That was before the Houthi rebels reportedly helped themselves to the reserves in Yemen’sCentral Bank, the country’s sole remaining neutral institution. Their rivals, the government and allies of ousted but internationally recognised President Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, moved the bank to their southern stronghold of Aden in September, and since then salaries of public sector workers on all sides of the conflict have gone unpaid.

The economy is now in complete freefall, with 80 percent of families in debt. “Middle-class people who used to be able to feed their families no longer have the cash to get food, even when it is available on the open market,” World Food Programme spokeswoman Abeer Etefa explained.

Getting food into Yemen is harder than ever, and becoming pricier too. This matters a great deal in a country that even before this war depended on imports for 90 percent of its food.

Commercial flights aren’t an option – the Saudi Arabia-led coalition has banned them for months. Hodeida port, once the main entry point for cargo ships bringing fuel, food, and medicine, was hit in August 2015. The airstrikes knocked out four of its five functioning cranes.

These days, ships are delayed for weeks at port – if they make it through a UN inspection and a slightly less formal one by the Saudi coalition. Mark Kaye, conflict and humanitarian advocacy advisor for Save the Children, told IRIN the majority of supplies are now unloaded by hand, and that his organisation is finding the private vessels it pays to bring in vital medicines increasingly hesitant to take on the risk.

This is compounded by an uptick of fighting off the coast – the latest example being more than 40 Somalis killed when their boat was struck recently, allegedly by an Apache helicopter.

WFP also struggles with delays (although it has its own ships), and in February it purchased four mobile cranes – to the tune of $3.8 million – meant as a stopgap to “boost the port’s capacity in handling humanitarian cargo”.

A spokesperson told IRIN the vessel carrying the cranes “had been waiting for approval for nearly two weeks to berth [at Hodeida]... but was denied the required security clearances to offload the cranes.” WFP didn’t respond when asked who exactly denied the clearance.

So the holdups continue, and they have real consequences. When Save the Children’s medications were delayed at port, Kaye said mobile medical teams “were running at the bare minimum”.

“That means you have to make really tough choices,” he added. “If you are treating the child who comes in and is critical, you can’t treat the child who isn’t critical today but will be next week.”

Once aid makes it into Yemen, it’s a dangerous obstacle course to get it to the most needy, as much of the worst malnutrition is in the areas most heavily impacted by fighting. And some places are under siege, like Taiz city andgovernorate, making distribution even harder.

“Every party to this conflict makes it extremely difficult for aid agencies and aid workers to get to some parts of the country,” said WFP’s Etefa. She described Yemen, with seven million in need of emergency food assistance to survive, as a “perfect storm… conflict, collapsing economy, limited capacity at ports, [Saudi and internal] blockades, more poverty, and a country that has had chronic hunger problems.”

The unthinkable may be about to get worse. There’s fear ground fighting is headed for Hodeida, potentially giving the Saudi-led coalition a road to the Houthis in Sana’a and shuttering the port completely. This is what keeps humanitarians up at night, and what might just throw Yemen into full-fledged famine.

The South Sudanese government has already declared famine in two counties, and the UN says 5.5 million people will be on the verge of starvation by July if they don’t get food.