Something extraordinary happened last week – something that should have been cause for alarm and a source of shame for every caring person. For the first time in six years, the United Nations declared a famine.
The UN does not use that word lightly. A famine is defined by internationally recognized guidelines and specific numerical criteria. The formula adds up to heart-wrenching human misery that equals widespread death from starvation or a lethal combination of undernourishment and disease.
That is the grim reality in South Sudan, where people are dying of hunger every day. Every day.
The plight of South Sudan may have gotten lost in the other horrifying news last week that 20 million people in Africa, mostly women and children, are facing devastating food shortages. The suffering spans four countries — Somalia, Yemen, Nigeria and South Sudan — but South Sudan is the only one that has hit rock bottom with a full-blown famine in two counties.
The other countries, and the areas of South Sudan that do not yet meet the criteria for a famine, are hurtling toward that abyss.
People on the brink of famine will do anything to escape its pull and that of the tragic violence of conflict. Desperate survivors from South Sudan were pouring into the Gambella refugee camp in Ethiopia at a rate of more than 20,000 a month when I visited the sprawling facility in 2014.
I have seen a lot of suffering in my role as a UN Messenger of Peace with a focus on hunger and extreme poverty, but Gambella was a new experience.
Despite the best efforts of dedicated UN workers, NGOs and the Government of Ethiopia, the camp was overwhelmed by the unending stream of desperate, hungry people. It was a muddy hellhole.
The vast majority of the refugees – about 90% ― were women and children. Many lived in squalor, with little or no protection against the rain.
I will never forget one mother I met – a proud women, who had walked with her children for days to reach the relative safety of Gambella. She had no idea where her husband was, or even whether he was still alive. He had been swept up in the conflict that remains the root cause of her country’s descent into chaos.
She told me what her life was like before she became a refugee. Her husband had a job, they had a house, their children went to school. Now, through no fault of her own, she was squatting in the mud in a refugee camp, where she was afraid of being raped if she had to use the outdoor toilet at night.
At that time, there were 170,000 South Sudanese refugees in Gambella. Today, there are more than 280,000.
And they are the lucky ones.
The unlucky ones are the nearly 5 million South Sudanese who are in desperate need of food – and the 15 million others in the same dire situation in Somalia, Yemen and Nigeria.
The 100,000 South Sudanese who struggle to survive beyond the brink, in the famine zone, are the most unlucky of all. The sad reality is, it may too late to save many of them. But it is not to late to pull others back from the brink.
By the time the last famine was declared by the United Nations, in Somalia in 2011, it had already claimed the lives of a quarter million people. The world has a chance to avoid that kind of death toll again.
“Famine is already a reality in parts of South Sudan. Unless we act now, it is only a matter of time until it affects other areas and other countries,” UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said in appealing for help last week. “We are facing a tragedy; we must avoid it becoming a catastrophe.”
Just as famine is defined by numbers, so, too, is the antidote. The UN needs to raise $4.4 billion by the end of March to avert widespread famine. So far, it has raised $90 million – about 2 cents for every dollar needed.
What can you do? Contribute to the World Food Programme and other UN agencies on the front line of the fight against famine. Urge your government to contribute humanitarian aide. Let others know what is happening in South Sudan and to 20 million people teetering on the brink of famine.
Secretary-General Guterres was right when he said, “The lives of millions of people depend on our collective ability to act. In our world of plenty, there is no excuse for inaction or indifference. We have heard the alerts. Now there is no time to lose.”