Conflict and drought in four African countries have left 1.4 million children at imminent risk of starvation, according to the United Nations.

Famine has been formally declared in South Sudan and children in Nigeria, Somalia and Yemen are suffering from severe acute malnutrition.

The World Food Programme says 20 million lives are at risk in the next six months.

A sick child lies in a bed in a UNICEF supported hospital in Juba, South Sudan, January 24, 2017. In 2017 in South Sudan, ongoing insecurity, combined with an economic crisis that has pushed inflation above 800 percent, has created widespread food insecurity with malnutrition among children having reached emergency levels in most parts of the country. In 2016, UNICEF and partners admitted 184,000 children for treatment of severe malnutrition. That is 50 percent higher than the number treated in 2015 and an increase of 135 percent over 2014.In February 2017, war and a collapsing economy have left some 100,000 people facing starvation in parts of South Sudan where famine was declared 20 February, three UN agencies warned. A further 1 million people are classified as being on the brink of famine. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the World Food Programme (WFP) also warned that urgent action is needed to prevent more people from dying of hunger. If sustained and adequate assistance is delivered urgently, the hunger situation can be improved in the coming months and further suffering mitigated. The total number of food insecure people is expected to rise to 5.5 million at the height of the lean season in July if nothing is done to curb the severity and spread of the food crisis. According to the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) update released 20 February by the government, the three agencies and other humanitarian partners, 4.9 million people – more than 40 percent of South Sudan’s population – are in need of urgent food, agriculture and nutrition assistance. Unimpeded humanitarian access to everyone facing famine, or at risk of famine, is urgently needed to reverse the escalating catastrophe, the UN agencies urged. Further spread of famine can only be prevented if humanitarian assistance is scaled up and reaches the most vulnerable. Famine is currently a
Image: © UNICEF/UN053461/Modola

In northeast Nigeria, the number of children with severe acute malnutrition is expected to reach 450,000 this year, said the charity UNICEF.

In Somalia, 185,000 children are already on the brink of famine. This figure is expected to rise to 270,000 in the next few months.

The UN estimates 6.2 million people in Somalia, half the population, are in need of humanitarian assistance.

In South Sudan, over 270,000 children are severely malnourished. And in Yemen, where a conflict has been raging for two years, 462,000 children are suffering from severe acute malnutrition – a near 200% increase since 2014.

 Image 2
Image: FEWS NET, OCHA, Southern Africa RVAC

Man-made problem

The humanitarian crisis is largely man-made, according to UNICEF.

In Nigeria the problem is most acute in conflict-hit areas in the north. An insurgency by the islamist group Boko Haram in this region has triggered the displacement of 2.3 million people since May 2013.

In just one year, the number of displaced children increased by more than 60% to 1.3 million. The fighting has disrupted deliveries to markets, leaving people dangerously short of food.

According to the Famine Early Warning Systems Network, famine likely occurred in some previously inaccessible areas of Borno state and other remote areas beyond humanitarian reach. The network says that famine is likely ongoing, and will continue.

In parts of South Sudan, famine has been declared in parts of Unity State in the northern central part of the country, where 20,000 children live. A formal famine declaration means people have already started dying of hunger.

The area has been mired in civil war since 2013. Economic collapse due to the conflict means people can’t afford to buy food. Prices have risen by up to 800%. Humanitarian organisations are unable to get food into the areas most affected by the conflict.

Jeremy Hopkins, UNICEF Representative in South Sudan said, “more than one million children are currently estimated to be acutely malnourished across South Sudan; over a quarter of a million children are already severely malnourished. If we do not reach these children with urgent aid many of them will die.”

It’s a similar story in Yemen, where war has been raging for two years. Families have lost the economic means with which to buy food.

The U.N. World Food Programme chief economist Arif Husain told Reuters: "there is food in the markets but people have not been paid, especially the urban population, which is about a third of the total population."

Yemen is officially still classed as an "emergency", but famine could be declared within about three months, he said.

Drought a factor

In Somalia, which has suffered decades of conflict, a lack of rainfall has brought about a severe drought. As the map below shows, between October and December 2016 large areas of the Horn of Africa received much less rainfall than in previous years.

 Image 3
Image: FEWS NET

The drought has severely limited crop production and, in Somalia in particular, the impact of a poor harvest is expected to be severe.

As famine and starvation take hold, UNICEF says it is working with others to provide treatment for a total of 620,000 severely malnourished children in Nigeria, South Sudan and Somalia. In Yemen another 320,000 children are in desperate need of UNICEF’s help.

The Famine Early Warning Systems Network says that in order to save lives, continued efforts to resolve conflict and improve humanitarian access are essential.

In addition, given the scale of anticipated need, donors and implementing partners should allocate available financial and human resources to those areas where the most severe food insecurity is likely.