Starving to death
Wars in four countries have left 20 million people on the brink
By Max Bearak and Laris Karklis
Apr 11 2017
Our world produces enough food to feed all its inhabitants. When one region is suffering severe hunger, global humanitarian institutions, though often cash-strapped, are theoretically capable of transporting food and averting catastrophe.
But this year, South Sudan slipped into famine, and Nigeria, Somalia and Yemen are each on the verge of their own. Famine now threatens 20 million people — more than at any time since World War II. As defined by the United Nations, famine occurs when a region’s daily hunger-related death rate exceeds 2 per 10,000 people.
The persistence of such severe hunger, even in inhospitable climates, would be almost unthinkable without war.
Each of these four countries is in a protracted conflict. While humanitarian assistance can save lives in the immediate term, none of the food crises can be solved in the long term without a semblance of peace. The threat of violence can limit or prohibit aid workers’ access to affected regions, and in some cases, starvation may be a deliberate war tactic.
Entire generations are at risk of lasting damage stemming from the vicious cycle of greed, hate, hunger and violence that produces these famines. Children are always the most affected, as even those who survive may be mentally and physically stunted for life. And while this article focuses on the four countries most immediately at risk, ongoing conflicts in Congo, the Central African Republic, Libya, Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan has left millions hungry in those places, too.
War and famine along the White Nile, in South Sudan
In February, the United Nations declared a famine in South Sudan’s Mayendit and Leer counties. It was the world’s first famine declaration since 2011, in Somalia.
But even in these two counties, every day from bullets than from empty stomachs or disease. The state the counties are in, Unity, has seen some of the most ruthless violence since South Sudan became an independent country five years ago.
Unity is the home state of Riek Machar, former vice president and leader of a rebel army of mostly ethnic Nuer people that has been locked in violent confrontations with South Sudan’s army, controlled by President Salva Kiir of the Dinka ethnic group, since 2013. Kiir’s army and allied militias have swept through Unity time and again, razing and burning entire villages, slaughtering and raping as they go. Thousands of people have drowned in the state’s rivers and swamps as they fled.
Those rivers and swamps would otherwise provide Unity’s people with abundant fish and water for irrigation. But relentless war renders just about all aspects of daily life unsafe, with people too afraid to leave home, fish, plant or trade. Even fleeing can be risky. Many are eating grass and water lilies just to survive.