Food & Hunger

  • In a world full of food one in eight people goes to bed hungry every night. Small farms around the world put food on the plates of one in three people on this planet. Yet extreme weather and unpredictable seasons are affecting what farmers can grow. Food prices are going up. Food quality is going down. Nearly a billion of the world’s poorest people are finding it even harder to feed their families. We demand a fairer and sustainable global food system so everyone has enough to eat. That means investing in small-scale food producers, helping farmers adapt to climate change, and securing and protecting their access to land.

The world has turned its back on South Sudan

Oxfam has been working in South Sudan for over 30 years. Since 2017, we have been responding to a deepening emergency, reaching over 500,000 people across South Sudan with life-saving aid. We also implement long-term development projects to advance gender justice and support people to build resilient livelihoods to help beat poverty now and into the future. In this blog, Chief Executive of Oxfam Ireland, Jim Clarken, reflects on his recent trip there.

South Sudan - A Country in Crisis

South Sudan is a country in crisis – a country on the brink of what could well become the world’s worst humanitarian disaster. Yet tragically, for the people of this young nation, their ongoing plight has failed to make the headlines.

For more than four years, the people of South Sudan have been caught up in a brutal civil war. The violence has had a devastating impact on the country’s citizens, millions of whom are suffering from extreme hunger as a result.

More than 4 million people have fled their homes since war broke out in December 2013. And last year alone, some 700,000 people fled South Sudan to neighbouring countries – that means that in 2017, more than one person fled the country every minute.

When I visited South Sudan earlier this month, I met many people whose lives have been turned upside down by the ongoing conflict. I spoke to women grieving for their dead children, families who have had to flee their homes and farmers forced to abandon their land – ordinary people, who, through no fault of their own, have found themselves caught up in the crisis.

Oxfam Ireland CEO Jim Clarken speaks with local fisherman in Nyal, South Sudan. Credit: Ben Clancy/Oxfam Ireland

People can no longer protect themselves and their families from the destabilising impact of war. There are battles on every front. Inflation rates are so high that the price of even basic foodstuffs is beyond the reach of families. Meanwhile, farmers who have had no choice but to leave their land are missing out on harvests – leaving the country’s food stocks at dangerously low levels.

In February of last year, famine was declared in two counties – Leer and Mayendit. At that time, 100,000 people were facing famine, and one million more were on the brink. A strong humanitarian response has undoubtedly kept famine at bay but the need for aid is more urgent than ever. In fact, an estimated 1.6 million more people are now more at risk than when famine was declared in 2017. And while the United Nations World Food Programme has been carrying out food drops in South Sudan, the supplies aren’t enough for the population which finds itself in a race against time.

During my visit I travelled to the islands around Nyal in Unity State, which have seen a large influx of people fleeing the violence. There I met many people who have been displaced and are now in a dire situation. Many arrived with nothing but the clothes on their backs, joining countless others with shared experiences. It had taken one group of women I spoke to seven days to reach safety. Having endured the harrowing and terrifying journey, they finally got the chance to grieve the children they had lost along the way.

With the support of Irish Aid, Oxfam Ireland is on the ground in Nyal, providing canoes to bring the sick and vulnerable from the islands to access life-saving aid and health care. We have also set up community gardens in the region, which enable people to grow their own food, or sell it to earn an income. And our protection teams are working with girls and women to ensure their safety in a new and unfamiliar environment.

Villagers of RAFONE island gather to meet Oxfam staff and discuss the progress they’ve made since receiving aid. Credit: Ben Clancy/Oxfam Ireland

Yet, despite our best efforts, the humanitarian situation remains dire – and it’s getting worse by the day. With other stories dominating the global headlines, I fear that South Sudan will be forgotten.

There is an onus on all of us to make sure the plight of this young nation is no longer ignored.

What is famine, and how can we stop it?

By Chris Hufstader
 
A mother and her child eat unprocessed sorghum in Rann, northeast Nigeria. Ongoing conflict here has constrained food supplies as two million people have been forced to flee their homes and farmlands. Humanitarian organizations estimate 7.7 million people in Nigeria are in need of assistance. Fati Abubakar/Oxfam
 
Millions of people are at risk of starvation and death in South Sudan, Nigeria, Somalia, and Yemen. Organizations such as Oxfam and the United Nations are struggling to find the resources to respond to the catastrophic humanitarian situations in these countries in an attempt to head off outright famine. 
 
If you’re wondering, “what is a famine anyway?” here are a few things you need to know.
 
Famine is not just a lack of food
 
Dan Maxwell and Nisar Majid’s 2016 book Famine in Somalia has a good definition: “Famine is broadly understood as ‘an extreme crisis of access to adequate food, manifested in widespread malnutrition and loss of life due to starvation and infectious disease.’”
 
In technical terms, a famine is a situation where one in five households experience “an extreme lack of food and other basic needs where starvation, death, and destitution are evident.” More than 30 percent of people are “acutely malnourished” and two out of every 10,000 people die from starvation. This set of conditions is the most severe case in a range of classifications monitored by something called the “Integrated Food Security Phase Classification” (IPC) that tracks the availability of food for people and helps governments and aid organizations anticipate a crisis before people experience famine, what the IPC calls Phase 5. (Phases 2-4 are not very nice situations either, by the way, and as you can see in this graphic, when people get to the famine stage, they typically have few or no resources to sustain them.)
 
Famine looks like a lack of food, and most people think it is brought on by a drought, a war, or an outbreak of disease. And some still believe in debunked 19th-century theories about “overpopulation” causing famine. But famines are usually caused by multiple factors, compounded by poor (or even intentionally bad) policy decisions that make people vulnerable. When no one addresses this vulnerability, it leads to famine.
 
This is why political scientist Alex de Waal calls famine a political scandal, a “catastrophic breakdown in government capacity or willingness to do what [is] known to be necessary to prevent famine.” When governments fail to prevent or end conflict, or help families prevent food shortages brought on by any reason, they fail their own people.
 
 
What causes famine?
 
There has been a dramatic decline in famines in the last 50 years. So why are we seeing famine and near-famine conditions now? The World Peace Institute recently released a statement on ending famine that summarizes currents trends as resulting “from military actions and exclusionary, authoritarian politics conducted without regard to the wellbeing or even the survival of people. Violations of international humanitarian law including blockading ports, attacks on health facilities, violence against humanitarian workers, and obstruction of relief aid are all carried out with a sense of renewed impunity. Famines strike when accountability fails.”
 
In Nigeria, the threat of famine is due to conflict between armed groups and the Nigerian military and has prevented farmers from growing any food in some northeastern areas for almost five years. Civil war in South Sudan and Yemen has also displaced families and cut off food supplies, as well as people’s access to aid. A lengthy, serious drought in Somaliahas killed off most of the crops and livestock, the main assets for many families. The situation in Somalia is compounded by climate change and the effects of long-term conflict, which continues to make it difficult to get help to some of the hardest-hit communities.
 
If we wait to respond until a famine is declared, it’s too late
 
The conflict in South Sudan started in 2013, so it’s no surprise famine was declared there in Unity State in early 2017, and that people in these areas continue to struggle to survive in near-famine conditions.
 
The conflict in Nigeria is going on eight years now. Aid groups such as Oxfam and UN agencies (including the Famine Early Warning System) have been warning the world about these deteriorating situations for some time. Humanitarian organizations have been seeking funds to head off a famine, but without the resources and successful efforts to end wars and help people withstand drought, we now have millions of people in four countries without enough food.
 
We (governments, the UN, aid organizations) know what to do, because the world has been successfully fighting famine for more than a century. In 2011, more than 250,000 people in Somalia lost their lives when the world ignored repeated warnings after the failure of rains in the region. We should not wait until the situation becomes really dire, with people (many of them children) starving and dying. We need to raise awareness and mobilize support months and years earlier. 
 
What Oxfam is doing
 
 
Women on Panyijar County, South Sudan, pump water from a well constructed by Oxfam. Oxfam provided clean water to 10,000 famine-affected people in this area over the last year. Photo: Bruno Bierrenbach Feder/Oxfam
 
Clean water for drinking, cooking, and bathing is essential in any humanitarian emergency to avoid deadly water-borne diseases such as cholera. But any stomach ailment from dirty water or poor hygiene will rob people of the nutrition they can derive from whatever food they can find. Children under 5 are particularly vulnerable. Oxfam helps improve and repair wells, and trucks in water to areas where there is none.
 
Proper sanitation and hygiene are essential for preventing disease. Oxfam helps construct latrines and distributes hygiene items like soap so people can wash their hands.
 
When food is available in markets, but might be scarce or very expensive for some, Oxfam distributes cash(sometimes in exchange for labor). Oxfam also distributes emergency food when necessary.
 
In areas where farmers can plant crops, Oxfam is helping supply seeds, tools, and other assistance so people can grow their own food. We also help farmers raising livestock with veterinary services, animal feed, and in some cases we distribute animals to farmers to help restock their herds.
 
Oxfam works with a network of local partners to help farmers improve and insure their harvests, create drought early-warning systems, and help people find other ways of earning money for food when crops fail. Much of the water and sanitation work Oxfam does is in close collaboration with local groups.
 
You can see a more detailed explanation of our activities in Nigeria, Yemen, South Sudan, and Somalia on our hunger and famine crises page.
 
Working to prevent famine
 
Oxfam is urgently seeking funds to help communities that are facing dangerous levels of hunger, whether due to chronic poverty, drought, or conflict. Even during normal times, most farming families in sub-Saharan Africa struggle to find enough food during the growing months. This is also the rainy season, so delivering food and water is even more challenging as many roads become unpassable.

Helping the People of Syria

Deir-Ez-Zor, Syria

The human suffering caused by seven years of civil war in Syria is overwhelming. Thousands of lives have been lost and over 13 million are living in extreme poverty, and in desperate need of humanitarian aid. We are helping those affected by the crisis across Syria with life-saving clean water, sanitation and vital food supplies. We have also been campaigning and advocating for an end to the fighting, and a sustainable and inclusive political solution since the beginning of the crisis.
 
Deir ez-Zor, the largest city in eastern Syria, gets really cold in the winter. At the beginning of the year, with the help of a local partner, we distributed over 25,000 packs of warm clothing and 400,000 bundles of bread to the families that had come back. The city of Deir-Ez-Zor was under ISIS control for the last 3 years. The civilians who remained in the war-torn city lived under besiegement with little access to food, water and medical supplies. 
 
"Before and during the besiegement, there was no food or water, people were dying. There was no medical supplies, there was nothing." 
 
It is only since late 2017 that the people of Deir-Ez-Zor have begun to return to the city. The people of the city have lost everything, their homes and their livelihoods. Due to the devastation of the city, many people had no protection from the harsh conditions of the extremely cold winter months. 
 
Since the liberation of the city, Oxfam has been providing thousands of families with warm coats for the winter and distributing bread,
 
"Thank God we can get bread and water, the water is pumped everyday, bread is available everyday, and now we are more comfortable. "
 
"Now we are warm, after being cold for a very long time me and my brothers and sister, we all feel warm now."

Women in South Sudan plow forward in their fields—and in their homes

An Oxfam program supplies female farmers with the tools to manage their crops and to redistribute power in their households.

“When our leaders told us that Oxfam was coming to train us to use oxen to plow our fields, we protested,” says Lucia, a farmer from Wau County, South Sudan. “Our tribe does not know cows and even so, it is a man’s work to train them and lead them through the fields. This is not for us women at all!”

Yet, 12 months later, she’s changed her tune. Lucia grins from ear to ear as she shows off Malual—the young bull that tills her land. Women in Lucia’s community—as in most parts of South Sudan—typically shoulder a huge workload. They do all the domestic work and much of the agricultural tasks. For many, this means waking up early to collect water, light a fire, make tea, and cook lunch, all before heading to a small plot of land to cultivate crops.

Farming often takes from morning to evening, and even then, doesn't always provide enough food to feed the family. This was Lucia’s experience until last year.

That’s where Malual come in.

Traditionally, people in Lucia's community use malodas—small tools with a sickle-shaped head—to till the land, but because the tools are so small, it takes a long time to work the land. Using oxen and employing techniques like planting in rows means women can cultivate much larger plots of land in less time.

“I am growing sorghum, okra, and peanuts, and I have been able to increase the size of the land I plow from half a fedan [half an acre] to more than two fedans [two acres],” she says. “Some of the food I eat as soon as I harvest; some I save for the lean season to eat or to sell. I’m also saving some for planting later this year.”

In the past, Lucia and her family skipped lunch because they only had enough food to stretch between breakfast and dinner. “My children are much happier and I can see they are looking well,” she says.

Lucia is earning enough money to pay some bills, and the time she's saved using oxen is going into a side business selling cakes—all of which has earned her the deep respect of her husband.

As part of the same project, she and her husband took part in workshops focused on women’s rights. “Now he respects me so much more,” she says with a grin. “The way we are together is completely different. Now we share all the tasks in the household. He is cleaning more, mopping, bringing water, and washing clothes. I am able to rest a bit more now.”

For those who have fled Eastern Ghouta, life now comes with different challenges

by Matthew Hemsley
 
An Oxfam staff member helps a child fill a water bottle from a tank in Herjalleh collective shelter.  Oxfam has been trucking clean water to the site, for the 14,000 Syrians displaced from Eastern Ghouta who are living there. Photo Credit: Dania Kareh
 
Queueing from dawn until mid-afternoon for the chance of a hot meal, living eight people to a small tent, stagnant dirty water risking waterborne diseases as the temperature rises, and a shortage of clean water for washing, eating and cooking… These are just some of the issues raised with me by Syrians forced to flee eastern Ghouta, now living in a collective shelter in Herjalleh, rural Damascus - home to over 14,000 Syrians living either in rooms in small apartment blocks, other living outside the buildings in tents.
 
While the shelter is not as busy as it used to be, with relatives of some women and older men in the shelter able to sponsor them to leave, those running the humanitarian response worry that more families from Douma will soon arrive.
 
One official said, "there could be 20,000 more people coming and the sanitation is already overflowing, it needs to be fixed."
 
Living conditions are already crowded. For those living in apartment blocks, seven to eight sometimes must share a room. Parents and their children too. For people living in tents, it's harder. I spoke to one family of eight living in a small tent.
 
"When we moved here, we lived in the open. Now we have this tarpaulin sheet. We don't know how long we will have to stay here like this. Our homes in Ghouta were destroyed."
 
One family told me they left Ghouta with just the clothes on their backs. They previously kept sheep, but had to leave their livestock, and their livelihood, behind. They have no savings.
 
It's tough for people living out here, and what little money they do have - some offered by relatives trying to help - just doesn't stretch that far.
 
There are shops in the shelter, selling vegetables and other goods, but though the prices are cheaper than they were in Ghouta, it is difficult for people with so little to afford what they need.
 
Warm meals are available, but people must wait in line, sometimes for hours at a time, to get their fair share. This is their everyday life.
 
Maintaining good hygiene is another challenge. A poor drainage and sanitation system means there is dirty water across the shelter, which increases health risks for the people who live here as the days get hotter, and as clean water becomes scarcer. Safety is a concern as well, and for many a simple trip to the installed showers and toilet blocks is a dangerous endeavour during the night hours.
 
But humanitarian agencies are helping improve conditions for civilians. Oxfam is providing clean water by truck to the communal water tower, the kitchen, and directly into tanks serving the apartment blocks. Tap stands are connected to other water sources making clean water available to those who need it. Other agencies, including the UN, are helping too. But more funding is desperately needed. Repairing a sanitation network that is overflowing, for example, doesn't come cheap - but it is lifechanging for the those living here, as well as for the community living in the nearby town.
 
For many people now in Herjalleh, the future looks uncertain. Many say their homes in Ghouta have been destroyed, their livelihoods lost. They have nowhere to go and want to remain in the shelter where at least there is some access to goods and services. Others have no way of knowing what is it that they've lost. But most hope to return to their homes someday. Whether that is a possibility or not remains to be seen.

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