Armed conflict, civil unrest and a harvest destroyed by El Niño have combined to create what the United Nations terms an “unprecedented situation” in which 37 countries face a crisis in food supply. Facing the "largest humanitarian crisis since 1945", the UN has called on governments to avoid what is a looming catastrophe.
“Never before have we been faced with [so many] threats of famine in multiple countries simultaneously,” said Kostas Stamoulis, Assistant Director General of the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). Stamoulis expressed particular worry over conditions in South Sudan, where a famine has been declared by the UN, and in Yemen, Somalia and northern Nigeria, where “grave concerns” exist over food security.
The food shortage in South Sudan affects 4.9m people, with 100,000 facing famine.
Due to economic crisis in the country, Ambassador Deborah Kuocnin has been unable to find work for the past year. "Since the war started in 2013, nothing has been the same. There are so many humanitarian crises happening in the country and the government does not want to admit to the widespread hunger", she says. Her food is provided by her husband who works as a political analyst with the United Nations, but those around her do not have the same luxury.
"Due to major insecurity, farmers aren't cultivating their fields and thus they cannot provide food. Traders import whatever food is available in the country but because they want to profit, the prices are too high for ordinary citizens. The government does not provide food at all. The worst part is they keep denying this hunger and people keep dying."
This was a “looming calamity” which the international community should have acted on earlier, says James Thuch Madhier, 27, a One Young World Ambassador from South Sudan. “I believe the international community should not have waited this long,” he says. “There is now an urgent need to mobilize quickly and provide a rapid response to contain the disaster.”
Only action to stop the fighting will ensure that the population does not continue to face starvation, he says. “The key to helping the people of South Sudan lies not in giving food drops during this disaster but in ending the deadly internal conflict that has devastated the economy and farming for the last three years.
Madhier, who is Director of Partnership for the African Trade Organisation and currently investigating child slavery on cocoa farms in Ghana and Ivory Coast, also calls for “climate adaptation” in South Sudanese agriculture if it is to break the cycle of drought.
The FAO report, titled “Crop Prospects and Food Situation”, highlights 37 countries - 28 of them in Africa - in need of external assistance for food because of the lingering effects of El Niño on last year’s harvests.
In Yemen, 17m people - two-thirds of the population - are food insecure as a result of the impact of conflict and climate conditions.
Yemeni One Young World Ambassador Mohammed Gaber, 27, says the fighting has increased vulnerability and food scarcity among a population already suffering from high levels of poverty. “Most of the people are unemployed or have lost their jobs as a consequences of the conflict. Rural communities have lost their livestock due to random airstrikes or because of a lack of means to feed their animals,” he says.
Gaber, who works for the Youth Peer Education Network (Y-PEER), a network of organisations using peer education in work on young people’s sexual and reproductive health and rights, argues that airlifting supplies to alleviate the food shortages is only a short-term solution.
“The intervention of the international humanitarian community should focus on community empowerment, especially in rural areas, rather than solely on the distribution of food and water,” he says.
Burundi is among other countries where conflict and civil unrest is exacerbating food insecurity, according to the FAO report.
Journalist and One Young World Ambassador Jean Paul Nshimirimana says the country is going through “a dark time in our history” largely due to the impact of climate change on last year’s harvest. “We have observed a massive rural exodus of people coming to towns for survival and many of them end up in the streets as beggars and girls end up in prostitution,” he says. “Some families fled to neighbouring countries for survival. A great number of children have dropped out of school.”
Although initiatives by the government and the UN have been introduced to feed schoolchildren and reduce dropout rates, Nshimirimana says they have limited benefit. “A lot still needs to be done,” he says. “Children are dying of hunger.”
Nshimirimana is co-founder and project manager of the YELI-Burundi (Youth Empowerment and Leadership Initiative), which advocates civic leadership and social entrepreneurship.
He believes Burundi needs a more diversified approach to agriculture - from improved irrigation methods to starting kitchen gardens and poultry farms - if it is to address its long-term food scarcity issues.
“The Government and local organizations - including the one I co-founded - need to invest in strengthening the agricultural sector,” he says. “Citizens need seeds and awareness of how to irrigate their farms using water from rivers. Burundi has many rivers and it needs to stop depending on the rain alone.”