'Preventing famine is a choice': UK urges action for millions facing starvation

Anne Gulland
Flooding in South Sudan last year exacerbated food shortages - Maura Ajak/AP
Flooding in South Sudan last year exacerbated food shortages - Maura Ajak/AP

The world must act now to prevent looming famine in some of the world’s most vulnerable countries, a leading UK official has said. 

In an interview with the Telegraph Nick Dyer, the UK’s first ever special envoy for famine prevention and humanitarian affairs, highlighted the dire situation in South Sudan, Yemen and north east Nigeria and called on donors and other countries to act. 

Warnings over famine have been building since the start of the pandemic - with the economic impact of Covid shutdowns exacerbating existing food shortages.

In December the United Nations released emergency funding of £75 million to countries at greatest risk.  Mr Dyer said parts of South Sudan are already in famine conditions.  

“This isn’t just a theoretical judgement, this is something that’s starting to emerge,” he said. 

Mr Dyer visited South Sudan in October, where recent flooding on top of a long-running conflict had led to a humanitarian crisis. 

“I went to a nutrition centre where 30 per cent of children who were coming in were acutely malnourished. Eighty per cent had malaria and there was also a measles outbreak. Only about half of nutrition centres were open so these were the lucky ones who managed to get there. It was absolutely desperate,” he said. 

He said famines were not “inevitable”.

“Preventing famine is a choice - it's entirely within our gift to prevent famine, this shouldn't be something that we're seeing in the 21st century,” he said.

For a famine to be declared certain conditions have to be met: one in five households in an area are facing an extreme lack of food, 30 per cent of children are suffering from acute malnutrition, and two people out of every 10,000 are dying every day due to starvation or malnutrition and disease.  

The WFP dropping food parcels in South Sudan - Tony Karumba/AFP
The WFP dropping food parcels in South Sudan - Tony Karumba/AFP

The last famine occurred in Somalia in 2011, when it was estimated around 260,000 people died.

“The big lesson from that was to act early,” said Mr Dyer.

“If you wait until a famine is declared, it is too late. In Somalia, 200,000 people died before that point. And then once it was declared more money came in and people got a grip on it,” he said.

This week there have been warnings over food shortages in Afghanistan and Madagascar where desperate inhabitants have been forced to eat clay.  In the badly-hit southern tip of the island 1.35 million people are facing food shortages, or nearly two-in-five of the region’s population. That figure is nearly double that of the same period last year. Seasonal work has dwindled, while food prices have leapt.

“To survive, families are eating tamarind fruit mixed with clay,” said Moumini Ouedraogo, the WFP’s representative in Madagascar. “We can’t face another year like this. With no rain and a poor harvest, people will face starvation. No one should have to live like this.”

Mr Dyer said more money was urgently needed with the WFP already cutting rations in several countries.  And he called on new countries and donors to intervene.

Lebanon heads for famine as pandemic accelerates hunger
Lebanon heads for famine as pandemic accelerates hunger

In Yemen famine was averted in 2017 after Middle Eastern countries such as the United Arab Emirates poured $2billion into the Yemeni banking system.

“They made a major contribution to preventing famine in Yemen. And we would like them to do something similar this time,” said Mr Dyer. 

However, five million people are now facing starvation in the war-torn Middle Eastern country. 

Mr Dyer said cash transfers to those in need was often the best way to avert a crisis. “In our experience providing cash is often the best monetary response. Put money in people's hands and they decide how to use it,” he said. 

However, money is not the only thing - ensuring warring parties allow aid to get to people who need it is also essential, he said. 

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