The Clock Is Ticking Down For The Millions Of People Facing Famine

05/15/2017 01:18 pm ET Updated May 15, 2017
Camp for internally displaced people in Somalia.
Refugees International
Camp for internally displaced people in Somalia.

In recent weeks, the crisis in Syria and the escalating tensions with Russia and North Korea have dominated news headlines, while a much less visible killer is poised to take an unprecedented toll. More than 20 million people face famine or near-famine conditions in Northeast Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, and Yemen, where men, women, and children are in urgent need of emergency assistance from the international community.

“These historic levels of food insecurity are ... the shocking consequence of a ‘perfect storm’ of man-made conditions...”

These historic levels of food insecurity are not surprising overnight developments, but, rather, the shocking consequence of a “perfect storm” of man-made conditions, including climate change and armed conflict. Urgent action by the international community is desperately needed to prevent large-scale deaths and devastating impacts on entire regions, including a dramatic increase in refugees fleeing to neighboring countries in search of food and safety. We cannot sit on our hands and allow any more time to slip by. The international community must act now rather than wait for famines to be formally declared in these countries. Recovery will be that much harder the longer we delay.

In February, the United Nations put out an appeal for $4.4 billion in funding to cover the necessary humanitarian response for the four countries. The U.S. Congress recognized the urgency of this historic crisis and established $990 million in emergency famine relief, including $300 million for the Food for Peace program in war-torn South Sudan, Somalia, Yemen, and Nigeria. But clearly, the United States cannot resolve this crisis alone ― the international community and individual nations around the world must also play their part. To achieve that end, strong U.S. international leadership is needed now more than ever.

Beyond the immediate funding needs, we also must take a hard look at the current U.S. policies in those regions. Has the United States really exerted all of its influence to bring a peaceful solution to Yemen, given that it continues military support to the Saudi-led coalition? In Nigeria, has the United States really done everything to fight corruption and bring about economic reform and promote peace and development among the Christian and Muslim communities? In South Sudan, is the United States willing to call out the masterminds of the violence and impose rigorous sanctions as we did in the case of Sudan? And in Somalia, has the United States done everything possible to promote political and economic stability? Can the U.S. do more to help eradicate poor governance in Somalia with the ultimate goal of alleviating the threats of Al-Shabab and the devastating impacts of drought and flooding? Beyond taking immediate lifesaving action, the current U.S. administration must widen its focus and tackle the underlying root causes contributing to the potential famines in those four countries. Without changing its approach, the United States cannot help these nations break out of the recurring cycle of suffering.

Famine conditions require complex responses well-known to the humanitarian community: effective interventions in the areas of food, livelihoods, health, water, sanitation, and hygiene. Success in addressing those issues will in large part depend on the rapid response by the international donor community and the willingness of the relevant governments to ensure unfettered access to the impacted areas.

“Success in addressing famine conditions in large part depend on the willingness of the relevant governments to ensure unfettered access to impacted areas.”

In Yemen, arguably the direst of the four famines, 17 million people face emergency levels of food insecurity. The port at Hudeidah is one of the only functioning food and humanitarian aid channels into Yemen, and it is working at greatly reduced capacity. The United States would do well to remember that any military action could further disrupt the operations of this harbor to such a point that it is very likely that Yemen will slip into an “official” famine as key supply pipelines are interrupted.

In Nigeria, the government has so far refused to permit UN agencies and other humanitarian actors from co-managing displacement camps in the country’s northeast. An international presence is critical in these camps, as the federal (NEMA) and state (SEMA) emergency agencies have been accused of aid diversion and sexual exploitation of internally displaced people (IDPs). Many of the IDPs have already escaped the horrors of Boko Haram and have been subjected to forced labor and sexual slavery rather than finding the safety to which they are entitled.

In South Sudan, people flee as the conflict and the risk of famine continue to spread, but neighboring countries in the region are not prepared to deal with the scale of the refugee influx. From January 2017 to the first part of April of this year, more than 95,000 South Sudanese refugees arrived in the Sudan, more than 200,000 in Uganda, 30,000 in Ethiopia, more than 6,700 in Kenya, 10,000 in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and more than 300 in the Central African Republic. This situation is untenable, and the humanitarian community throughout the region must be supported to provide food assistance and other kinds of relief to South Sudanese refugees.

In Somalia, drought conditions are worsening. The UN predicts that famine is a “strong possibility” if this year’s April to June rainy season is poor. Currently, more than five million people across Somalia are food insecure, and since November 2016, the drought has forced more than 620,000 people from their homes – most moving from rural to urban areas within Somalia (like Mogadishu and Baidoa) in search of lifesaving assistance. More than 4,000 have crossed into Dolo Ado camp in Ethiopia since January. New Somalis have arrived in the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya, but these arrivals are not regularly registered, and the Kenyan government maintains its intention to close the camp entirely, potentially sending camp residents back to insecure and drought-ridden areas of Somalia.

“The United States has long been a leader in the response to global humanitarian crises, not only doing its part financially but also by demonstrating leadership and encouraging other countries to do their share.”

The United States has long been a leader in the response to global humanitarian crises, not only doing its part financially but also by demonstrating leadership and encouraging other countries to do their share. This historic famine crisis will test the U.S. administration’s resolve, determination, and decisiveness in matching America’s unrivaled economic and military power with an equal measure of smart soft power. Failure is not an option, as the outcome will be measured in human lives.

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