The UN has warned that the world is facing its largest humanitarian crisis since the organization was founded in 1945. Aid agencies have been warning for months and, in the case of Somalia, for years of an impending catastrophe. But the situation has deteriorated rapidly in the past 12 months.
Here is a look at the causes of food shortages and what is being done.
Are these crises man-made? The short answer is yes, although to varying degrees:
– North-east Nigeria has been a center of Boko Haram militancy. In the past 12 months the government has made military inroads, but hundreds of thousands of people have been forced from their homes or trapped in Boko Haram areas. The UN’s World Food Programme says individual families face starvation, but the situation is not yet widespread enough for a famine to be officially declared.
– The two-year conflict in Yemen has pushed the poorest Arab state into a humanitarian crisis and driven millions of people to the brink of starvation. Saudi Arabia launched a Sunni-led military coalition two years ago to fight against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels, who had ousted the government. More than 10,000 civilians have died. Some 7m people face severe food shortages. The Saudis are blocking ports, ostensibly to stop the flow of weapons but also affecting food imports.
– Somalia is different because the main reason for hunger is a drought, described by pastoralists as the worst in living memory. Temperatures have been rising in the Horn of Africa and weather patterns have become more unpredictable, a phenomenon some blame on global warming. Ever since 2011, the country has been plagued by internecine fighting. Aid agencies say that, in some of the worst-affected regions, multiple armed militias are fighting for territory. 40 per cent of the population are at risk.
Is there donor fatigue? The refugee crisis triggered by the war in Syria has sucked up a lot of international attention and funding. In western countries, the appetite for foreign aid is lower among parts of the population. But Challiss McDonough, regional spokeswoman for the World Food Programme, said “fatigue is not the right word,” adding: “It is more like an overwhelming of the humanitarian system: 20m people are facing potential famine. A year ago I would have said that was unimaginable.”
Are countries condemned to repeat these catastrophes year after year? No. Ethiopia is often associated with starvation because of the 1983-85 famine in which at least 400,000 people died, with some estimates suggesting as many as 1m. Since then, however, a new government has taken big steps to prevent a recurrence. Last year, Ethiopia suffered the worst drought in at least three decades. People certainly went hungry, but Addis Ababa was able to mount a concerted response that was made easier by much-improved infrastructure, years of fast economic growth and prudent planning.