A crisis borne of drought and wars

Over 20m people face starvation and famine because of natural and man-made disasters

UN's urgent food aid

The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) has been airdropping emergency food rations to famine-stricken areas in South Sudan.

Some 14,000 people have been assisted by inter-agency rapid response mission teams in Leer Town, one of the areas worst hit by the scourge, it said. "WFP is now delivering 259 tonnes, which is a full ration for one month of the three major commodities - that is cereal, pulses and vegetable oil," WFP official Lenidace Rugemalila told Reuters.

Food aid is expected to be distributed to 50,000 people in Leer, while almost five million need urgent food assistance.

JUBA • Since South Sudan's war erupted, Ms Mary Nyal's husband has vanished and she narrowly escaped being raped by armed men.

But it was looming famine that finally forced her to flee her home county and live hand-to-mouth in the capital. "I had no way of getting food to eat," the 33-year-old mother of three told the Washington Post as she clutched her baby to her chest and asked passers-by for change in a market in central Juba.


If you try and go to collect food, you can get shot. I had plenty to eat there on my land, but I had to suffer like everyone else in the town... People are experiencing hunger and yet food is spoiling in their fields. It's baffling.

SOUTH SUDANESE MONICA KEJI, who had fled her home as she was unable to reach her crops after new armed groups emerged


  • The UN needs US$4.4 billion (S$6.2 billion) by July to avert a catastrophe in Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia and Nigeria. Here's an overview of the aid needed in each country and the problems getting it there:


  • 18.8m people need US$2.1 billion in aid

    • A man-made crisis after two years of war between Iran-backed Houthi insurgents and the government backed by a coalition led by Saudi Arabia

    • Aid hampered by continued fighting, lack of rule of law, poor governance and underdevelopment

    • A naval embargo, fighting around the port of Aden and air strikes on the port of Hudaydah have severely reduced imports since 2015

    • A lack of fuel, insecurity and damage to markets and roads have also prevented supplies from being distributed


  • 7.5m people need assistance

    • A man-made crisis. A civil war that began in 2013 has forced people to flee, disrupted agriculture, sent prices soaring and cut off aid agencies from the worst-hit areas.

    • Aid hampered by a lack of rule of law and underdevelopment. Some UN officials have suggested the government has been blocking food aid to certain areas, a claim denied by the authorities.

    • There have also been reports of humanitarian convoys and warehouses coming under attack or being looted, either by government or rebel forces.

    • South Sudan announced on March 2 it will raise annual foreign worker visa fees to as much as US$10,000, affecting hundreds of aid workers in the country


  • 6.2m people need assistance

    • Famine caused by severe drought, which has killed livestock and crops

    • Aid hampered by attacks by Islamist militant group al-Shabab, lack of rule of law and underdevelopment.

    • Piracy off Somalia's coast impeded shipments in the past, though these have fallen significantly.


  • 7.1 m people need assistance

    • Attacks by Islamist group Boko Haram since 2009 have displaced two million people from their homes.

    • Aid curbed by attacks, lack of rule of law and underdevelopment,

    • Aid cannot reach areas controlled by Boko Haram

    • There are allegations of widespread aid theft, which are being investigated by Nigeria's government.


"The last time I reached my field to harvest was in 2015."

Last month, the United Nations (UN) officially declared famine in Ms Nyal's home county Mayendit, in Unity state, about 400km north of Juba. This was the world's first official declaration of famine since 2011.

Last Friday, the UN warned that the world was facing its worst humanitarian crisis since the end of World War II, with more than 20 million people facing starvation and famine in four countries - Yemen, Somalia, South Sudan and Nigeria. Some US$4.4 billion (S$6.2 billion) in aid is needed by July to "avert a catastrophe".

Severe droughts are partly to blame. Some parts of Somalia, reports The Telegraph, have not seen rain in three years. Aid workers say over six million people are going hungry, while 71,000 malnourished children face a high risk of death.

Among them is one-year-old Abdirahman in the self-declared Republic of Somaliland. Tears rolled down his face but he was too weak to cry. His mother, 19-year-old Hinda Cadare, who is heavily pregnant with her next child, could only look on as he starved. She told The Telegraph she did not have the means to take him to the nearest clinic 32km away, nor to pay for treatment.

But she had still travelled from the countryside towards town. "In case my son dies, I have to have somewhere to bury him," she said, referring to the town's cemetery.

Those who remain in the parched countryside, now littered with the rotting carcasses of sheep and goats, have not fared better, says The Telegraph.

Ms Khadra Saeed has been surviving on one meal of rice a day and is so hungry she could not produce breast milk to feed her malnourished son. He died only seven days after he was born, and was buried unnamed because she could not find a sheep to be slaughtered in accordance with the local naming ceremony.

Eight in 10 livestock in Somalia have died, depriving the country's largely nomadic population of their food and income source. Crops have also failed.

Much of the food crisis facing these nations, however, is man-made, say experts. Wars have displaced vast swathes of the population from their farms and upended the rule of law.

War-wracked Yemen is a prime example, having been described by the UN as "the largest humanitarian crisis in the world", with two-thirds of its population, or 18.8 million people, in need of assistance and more than seven million with no regular access to food.

The Arab world's poorest nation has been engulfed in two years of war between Iran-backed Houthi insurgents and the government, which is backed by a coalition led by Saudi Arabia.

Addressing the Security Council last week, UN humanitarian chief Stephen O'Brien said of Yemen's war: "...all parties to the conflict are arbitrarily denying sustained humanitarian access and politicising aid."

He noted that despite assurances of safe passage to the city of Taiz, he was denied access and came under gunfire.

He also said: "The famine in South Sudan is man-made. Parties to the conflict are parties to the famine - as are those not intervening to make the violence stop."

Some 7.5 million people in South Sudan are in need of aid.

South Sudanese Monica Keji, who fled to Juba from Yei town, told the Washington Post that she had planted potatoes, cassava and beans in her fields. But the emergence of new armed groups in September last year meant she could not reap her harvest, planted in the fertile soil of the Equatoria region.

"We were trapped," the 28-year-old recalled. "If you try to go and collect food, you can get shot. I had plenty to eat there on my land, but I had to suffer like everyone else in the town."

Ms Keji is doing anything she can - collecting trash, begging, washing dishes - to make some money and stay put in Juba.

"People are experiencing hunger and yet food is spoiling in their fields," she said. "It's baffling."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 14, 2017, with the headline 'A crisis borne of drought and wars'. Print Edition | Subscribe