The United Nations warned Tuesday that mass starvation is threatening the lives of 20 million people in the Horn of Africa. This stark message comes just five years after the “worst humanitarian crisis in 60 years” hit the region, claiming the lives of 260,000 people – half of whom were children under the age of 5.
Severe drought, conflict, collapsing economies, political instability, and a lack of aid means that 20 million people primarily in Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, and Yemen are at huge risk of starvation once again — and as before, it is children who are most at risk.
This was the message delivered by UNHCR spokesman Adrian Edwards, who said that “an avoidable humanitarian crisis” was “fast becoming an inevitability” as a result of a severe funding shortfall. Of the $4.4 billion UNHCR requested for the four affected countries, it has received less than $984 million (or 21 percent) to date.
“We are raising our alarm level further by today warning that the risk of mass deaths from starvation among populations in the Horn of Africa, Yemen, and Nigeria is growing,” Edwards told a news briefing. “This really is an absolutely critical situation that is rapidly unfolding across a large swath of Africa from west to east.”
Edwards said that early identification of these problems was crucial if intervention was to have an impact. “Always the problem that we have with humanitarian crises in sub-Saharan Africa is that they tend to get overlooked until things are too late,” he said. “A repeat must be avoided at all costs.”
In South Sudan alone, where the UNHCR in February declared a famine with 100,000 at risk, the agency now says an extra 1 million people are “on the brink of famine.”
But it is Yemen that remains the site of the world’s largest humanitarian crisis, with almost 19 million people in need of humanitarian help, and 17 million people described as food-insecure.
The number of refugees who are fleeing the four countries is also being revised upwards by the U.N. Of the 20 million people at risk, 4.2 million are refugees, and in some places children account for over 62 percent of those on the run.
A shortage of aid has meant that there is no money for food to be bought, and rations have been cut – in some places by up to 75 percent. “Many refugees are without full access to livelihoods and agriculture or food production, and their ability to take matters into their own hands and help themselves is limited,” Edwards said.
The knock-on effect of the drought will hit children hardest. In parts of Kenya impacted by the drought, up to 175,000 children have stopped attending school, while in Ethiopia 600 schools have closed. Edwards estimated that in the coming weeks and months, up to 5 million children will see their education affected by this drought.