Four famines put more than 20 million at risk of starvation

Andre Vornic, World Food Programme, AFP | A handout photo by the WFP shows people queuing for WFP distributed cash in Northeastern Nigeria, on January 24, 2017

More than 20 million people are at risk of dying from starvation within six months in four separate famines, the World Food Programme (WFP) warned last week.


Conflicts in Yemen, northeastern Nigeria and South Sudan have devastated households and driven up food prices while a drought in Somalia has ruined the agricultural economy.

In Yemen and South Sudan, economic collapse means people simply cannot afford the food that is available. In Nigeria's Borno state, where millions of people have fled Boko Haram militants, commerce and markets have been disrupted, leaving people dependent on an overwhelmed emergency aid system.

FRANCE 24 spoke to the WFP’s Deputy Director Peter Smerdon about what can be done to address the famines.

FRANCE 24: What can be done to prevent the situation from escalating?
WFP: At this point, you have to get food and other assistance to the people in need. We try to do that through the parties involved in the conflict by getting them to accept that they need to let assistance into their areas because it is the right thing to do. If they don’t cooperate, large numbers of people in the areas they control will die. That is sometimes difficult because a conflict is usually two-sided and crossing those lines becomes difficult. But we can air drop food to get it to people in need, and we have rapid response teams who get on a helicopter and fly into an area that is cut off to distribute food within that area. So there are ways around it, but it is difficult and expensive, and a lot of work to reach such large numbers of people who are at risk.

FRANCE 24: Has there been any progress in the way humanitarian agencies deal with famine situations?
WFP: Early warning systems in the last 20 years have really gotten a lot better. We receive a lot of warnings when a famine is looming. We are using things like SMS and mobile phone services to reach people in areas in Yemen and South Sudan that are cut off from us reaching them. We can take surveys and see from families how many meals they’re eating. Have they fallen into debt? Have their livestock died? The kind of things that are survival strategies for families before they end up in famine. Famine is when they have absolutely nothing left. The difficulty is that many people will hold off when you warn about a famine and say we will only contribute, take it seriously when a famine arrives and by then it is too late. A large number of people would already have died.

FRANCE 24: What needs to happen now to avoid these four countries reaching the state of famine?
WFP: There really does need to be a serious look at the way politics is failing to deliver peace in these countries. If this does not happen, extreme food shortage is the situation you end up with. An unprecedented four countries face famine in 2017, when the most we’ve seen is one or two at a time. When it gets to a [state of] famine, it is too late for a very large number of people who have already died. When the country recovers you have to spend a lot more money trying to help people recover, which takes years because they have lost everything. You can’t let the world go through such extremes of suffering. There has to be pressure from the international community on governments and rebel groups not to let the system fall into chronic prolonged conflict. That way, even if droughts come, if climate change comes, we should be able to cope with the situation before it becomes a famine.

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