Africa food crisis: A looming disaster

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A severe food crisis is advancing across East Africa, Nigeria, and Yemen, with more than 20 million people at risk. Xavier Duvauchelle, Handicap International’s desk officer for the East Africa region, explains the scale of the disaster and how our teams on the ground are responding.

What can you tell us about the scale of this crisis? 

It is difficult to comprehend the extent of suffering across the region right now. Twenty million people in South Sudan, Somalia, Yemen, and Nigeria, are facing critical levels of food insecurity. This is a terrifying number–the equivalent to the populations of New York, London, and Paris! Every day, for months, each of these 20 million people has been trying to find enough food to sustain themselves and their loved ones. Tragically, in some areas people are already dying from starvation and related diseases.

Our teams in East Africa are genuinely afraid because we all remember the food crisis in 2011 that that resulted in 271,000 deaths. The latest statistics and our own experience on the ground show that we are now facing a much larger disaster. I would say that without drastic intervention we will witness a level of human suffering unlike anything we have seen for the past 70 years. 

Who is most at risk?

In crises situations, we know that some people struggle more than others and can quickly become extremely vulnerable. When food is scare, those most at risk of malnutrition and other complications include the elderly, individuals with physical or mental disabilities, babies, and pregnant women. Take the example of someone who has a problem with walking due to a physical disability. To leave their home and travel long distances to reach a food or water source is very challenging and they may not any money to pay for transport. Struggling on foot, they might become separated from people in their community who know how to help or care for them. Once in a place of safety, they may not be able to stand for long periods to wait for food assistance or to pump and carry water.

Handicap International understands the specific needs of such vulnerable people in crisis situations and our expertise is valuable to partners coordinating the humanitarian response. We are implementing simple but efficient changes such as making sure that water points can be used by people with reduced mobility and training aid workers to identify and support people with additional needs. It is essential that people most at risk are not forgotten or left behind.

With 20 million people at risk, how do you prioritize your activities?

The needs and challenges in each region vary greatly so we always evaluate our interventions based on the greatest need and in coordination with others.

As an example, we have seen an unprecedented rise in the numbers of South Sudanese refugees arriving in Northern Uganda and Western Ethiopia in recent months. We are particularly concerned about the numbers of children under five years old who are arriving in a state of severe and acute malnutrition. These children are at extremely high risk of infection and their growth and cognitive development can be stalled. Therefore, we have sought emergency funding to bring a stimulative physical therapy program to the area. We will provide specially trained physical therapists to work in partnership with other medical professionals to ensure that each baby and child affected has the best chances of a full recovery. 

Handicap International is one of few NGOs present in South Sudan. Can you describe the situation there and the work you are carrying out?

The situation in South Sudan is extremely dangerous and all humanitarian groups are facing huge security issues to reach people in need. Roads are impassable in certain conditions and armed groups pose a very real threat to humanitarian workers.

To respond to the situation as it evolves and to cover as many areas as possible, Handicap International operates a ‘flying team.’ This team of professionals specializes in a wide range of different areas, such as rehabilitation and psychosocial support. They can visit camps for displaced people and to work in collaboration with other organizations.  Despite the challenges, the team can reach people in need and to link them with appropriate services.  Their work providing mobility aids and ensuring fair access to food, water, and healthcare is making a positive difference for people who have been uprooted from their homes.

Based on your experience and recent assessments in the affected countries, what is the outlook for this crisis?

It seems clear that the situation is going to deteriorate in the coming months for several reasons. First, in the Horn of Africa region, the rainy season has just started several weeks late, and is unlikely to provide enough water for sufficient food production.

Second, one of the major causes of the shortage of food is conflict. Hundreds of thousands of people are fleeing from violence in South Sudan, Somalia, and Nigeria. These individuals have left behind their land, animals, and jobs, meaning that they are not able to produce their own food or to generate income to buy it. Unfortunately, there is no indication that these conflicts will abate in the short term, meaning that massive numbers of food-dependent individuals will continue to be displaced. One million refugees from South Sudan are expected to be settled in Uganda by the end of 2017, for example.

Finally, this situation is likely to get worse because the international response has been too slow. We have known about these trends and risks for many, many months, but the crisis has struggled to gain attention. The UN called for $4.4 billion in March and only 21% has been raised so far. This might seem like a distant or political problem but, to be very clear, without this money for emergency assistance, many people will die.