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Accelerating risks of famine
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 02 - 03 - 2017

The UN children's fund UNICEF has announced that 1.4 million children are at “imminent risk” of death resulting from severe malnutrition in four countries in or bordering the Middle East region, namely Nigeria, South Sudan, Somalia and Yemen.
UNICEF Executive Director Anthony Lake said in a statement that “time is running out for more than one million children.” However, he said that “we can save many” and that the “acute malnutrition and imminent famine are man-made.”
He warned of a “repetition of the mistakes of the 2011 famine in the Horn of Africa” that hit Ethiopia, Somalia and Kenya and affected 13 million people.
According to Reliefweb, which specialises in humanitarian relief and monitoring around the globe, the famine is a result of factors including drought, inflation, armed conflict, and the proliferation of weapons in the region as a result of the conflict in Somalia that has been raging for some 25 years.
Three UN agencies have now declared a state of famine in the Unity State of South Sudan, where more than 100,000 people, including 20,000 children, face hunger in a country torn by a tribal conflict that began just two years after seceding from Sudan in 2011.
UNICEF, the World Food Programme (WFP) and the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) said in a statement last week that “the official announcement of famine means people have now actually died of hunger. The situation is the worst it has been since the civil war erupted in the country three years ago.”
South Sudanese President Salva Kiir Mayardit has vowed to help relief agencies reach Unity State in the north of the country.
The Famine Early Warning System Network (FEWS Net), an organisation created by USAID in 1985 after a famine in Africa affected some 20 countries, said drought was partially responsible for the famine in South Sudan, but the main reason was the armed conflict between the president's forces and those of the vice president.
FEWS Net said the conflict had prevented trade, humanitarian relief, and many people from working and making a living.
A statement by UNICEF said that as well as those in Unity State, there were also another 270,000 children who were severely malnourished in the country. The number of food-insecure people in South Sudan is expected to rise from 4.9 million to 5.5 million at the peak of the dry season in July.
The size of the hike would depend on how quickly the international community moved to help those suffering in the world's newest state, it said.
In north-eastern Nigeria, there are now some 450,000 children affected by malnutrition amid a conflict between the armed group Boko Haram and the government led by President Mohamed Buhari who was elected in 2015.
FEWS Net reported at the end of last year that famine had started in Nigeria's Borno State and was likely to spread to other areas in the absence of humanitarian aid. It said the reason for the famine was the attacks by Boko Haram that had caused the displacement of around three million people, with many losing their livelihoods.
In Somalia, a country that elected a new president in early February, around 185,000 children are suffering from severe malnutrition, and this figure is expected to rise to 270,000 in the next few months if no action is taken.
According to UNICEF, 6.2 million people are facing acute food insecurity in Somalia, which has been in the throes of civil war since the overthrow of president Siad Barre in 1990. The central state has collapsed, and some provinces have declared statehood, such as Puntland and Somaliland, though these have not been recognised.
In Yemen, there are growing numbers of children suffering from severe malnutrition, with the figure now being put at 462,000 as a result of the conflict in the country over the past two years. According to UNICEF, this is a 200 per cent increase since 2014 and after the Saudi-led Arab Coalition began air strikes in March 2015.
FEWS Net said the conflict in Yemen had decreased incomes, increased prices, and suspended imports, making it difficult for poorer families to find food. Yemen is also suffering from a widespread drought, which has harmed agriculture. However, the conflict, which has displaced millions and killed thousands, is the main cause of the malnutrition suffered by hundreds of thousands of children and their families, it said.
FEWS Net added that 70 million people in 40 countries are believed to be suffering from malnutrition, a 40 per cent increase compared to figures from 2015. However, famine is only likely to continue in the four countries mentioned in the UNICEF report, and while there are many countries with large malnourished populations, none are as large as those in these four countries.
According to FEWS Net, Syria and Malawi have the same number of famine victims as South Sudan and Somalia, but they suffer from a lesser degree of malnutrition. People in Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia and Sudan are also suffering from malnutrition like in Somalia and Nigeria, but to a lesser degree.
All these countries in which famine could occur suffer from armed conflicts to one degree or another, and as they have adopted either neo-liberal or structural adjustment policies they have been largely unable to assist their citizens. There have also been successive droughts in these countries as a result of global climate change.
This trio of violence, drought and neo-liberal policies has been turning into a death triangle for many, and once two appear the third quickly follows. The sequence usually begins with drought coinciding with economic policies of privatisation. Then the government removes itself from social services, and easy access to weapons grows whether at home or from a war in a neighbouring country.
This has been true of Sudan, for example. In South Sudan, a civil war broke out in the early 1980s amid a sweeping drought and desertification that impacted the entire region and against a background of the IMF-recommended structural adjustment polices adopted by the government of the then president Jaafar Numeiri.
The people in South Sudan suffered as a result, and something similar happened once again two decades later in the Sudanese region of Darfur.
The same thing happened in Nigeria, which suffered severe drought in the north-east of the country as it began implementing privatisation policies and cutting spending on social services. When Boko Haram extremists and separatists in the Niger Delta then began arming themselves, the country endured widespread humanitarian suffering.
The situation in Syria is similar. Between 2004 and 2009, the country suffered drought in the north-east with the government of President Bashar Al-Assad adopting structural-adjustment policies. It did not provide assistance to people displaced from the drought regions to already deprived cities that could not accommodate more people.
Those affected by the drought and the government's policies, whether they relocated or stayed in their villages, were the fuel for the protests that later broke out against the government, and many were then recruited by extremist groups after the arrival of weapons from outside the country.
Even Somalia has barely had the time to recover before drought, state policies, and the inflow of weapons have ignited the conflict over and over again.
UNICEF's warning thus appears to be raising the alarm about climate change and its link to famine in countries neighbouring or in the region. But in reality it is also drawing attention to the roots of famine in the neo-liberal policies and structural-adjustment programmes recommended by the IMF to the countries of the region.


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