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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."

Take action now to help end tax dodging

 
Ask the Irish government to support real corporate tax transparency.
 
In order to beat poverty for good we need to change the rules that allow corporations to dodge paying their fair share of tax. 
 
Currently, the global tax system drives inequality by allowing some companies to legally avoid paying tax.  Meanwhile, it is the poor – who are landed with higher tax bills and inadequate public services – that pay the price. 
 
Over the past two years, with the support of people across the island of Ireland, we’ve been campaigning to increase tax transparency by introducing public Country by Country Reporting, or pCBCR in the EU. If pCBCR was implemented, corporations would have to publish where they make profits and pay taxes - and this would make it much easier to lift the lid on tax dodging in the EU. 
 
Right now, we need to remind our government to support pCBCR and real corporate tax transparency.
 
Will you help us?
 
Together, we want to make as much noise as possible – please join us by tweeting the Minister for Finance @Paschald and the Minister of State @PatBreen1 to let them know we are serious about fighting the inequality caused by tax dodging and beating poverty for good. 
 
 
Thank you so much for your support – you can read more about how to get involved in our fight against poverty and inequality here: https://www.oxfamireland.org/getinvolved

WORLD REFUGEE DAY 2018

Today, almost 45,000 people will be forced to flee their homes due to conflict and persecution. But there is nothing unusual about today – the same thing will happen tomorrow and every day after that.

There is no end in sight to this unprecedented displacement, and unless global political leaders take action, this is a tragedy that will continue to unfold.

To mark World Refugee Day, we meet just some of the 68.5 million refugees and displaced people forced to leave their homes – and the life they once knew – behind.

 

Nur* (35) with her youngest child Sikander* (2) outside their shelter in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Photo: Kelsey-Rae Taylor/Oxfam

In Bangladesh, Nur* and her children live in a makeshift camp in Cox’s Bazar. They were forced to flee the violence in Myanmar, which claimed the life of Nur’s husband.

“We had to struggle such a lot for four nights and five days on our way over here,” said Nur*. “We had to starve for four days. We had to crawl over hills.

“My shoulder swelled up to my neck as I had to carry my baby by fastening him with a rope. If he fell, I knew I’d lose him.

“Our tears dried up, we lost our hunger. We had to go through such traumatic circumstances to reach safety.  

“We could not sleep in Myanmar because we were afraid but we can sleep well here in the camp. There, we could not sleep, we were always tense. But here we don’t have that sort of fear.”

Ikhlas and Ali sit with their son Muhamed* inside their container at the Filippiada camp in Greece. Photo: Andy Aitchison/Oxfam

Meanwhile, Ali and Ikhlas and their young son Muhamed* are trying to adjust to their new life after fleeing the war in Syria.

The young family is currently living in a camp on the Greek island of Lesvos after being saved by the coast guard. They had been en route to Italy when the sea conditions deteriorated. “We were at sea on a boat with another 47 people,” said Ali (30). “The sea got very rough. It was terrifying. My wife and my little boy were with me and I cannot swim.

“Thankfully the Greek navy came and helped us… I was looking at my phone every minute, hoping it would end. The whole thing lasted 55 minutes. I still have nightmares because of it.”

Back in Syria, Ali was a farmer and had his own livestock. But he said: “Because of the bombings, we had to leave everything behind. I have seven brothers; only one of them is still in Syria, while the other six are in Germany. We would like to join them and start a new life away from bombs and violence.”

Dieudonné* was forced to flee his home with his wife and four children. Photo: John Wessels/Oxfam

Elsewhere, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Dieudonné* describes how he and his family were attacked by their neighbours from a nearby village. Seven people were killed during the violence, forcing the father of four and his family to seek refuge in a camp miles from home.

“When we fled, we would sleep during the day in the bush and carry on the journey at night,” he said. “We had to walk all night because we feared they would spot us and arrest us.”

Dieudonné* said the attackers set fire to his house and his livestock, adding: “That’s all the wealth I had. Now I am left with nothing.”

Oxfam is working in refugee camps worldwide, providing life-saving aid including clean water, sanitation and food to those who have been forced to flee. In addition, we help to protect refugees from violence and abuse, ensure they understand their rights and give them access to free legal aid.

*Names changed

Oxfam ready to respond to the catastrophic attack on Yemen’s Hodeidah port

Hodeida port is key to imports of food, fuel, medicine for humanitarian aid
 
Oxfam and partners are preparing for the potentially devastating aftermath of the attack on Yemen’s Hodeidah port as the military offensive threatens more lives already hanging in the balance. 
 
The aid agency has been working in Yemen for over 35 years and responded to the escalation of the present crisis in 2015 with the support of Irish Aid.  
 
With more than 22 million people reliant on humanitarian aid and more than 8 million people one step away from famine, Oxfam and other organisations have long warned of the humanitarian fallout of such an attack. Hodeida is a key port on the Red Sea in Yemen through which up to 80% of the country’s food and 50% of its fuel flow as well as critical medicines
 
Jim Clarken, Oxfam Ireland’s Chief Executive, said: “The failure to stop the attack on Hodeidah port is a death sentence for the millions of Yemeni people already in desperate need of food, water and humanitarian assistance."
 
“At its worst, the UN warns that this attack will leave 250,000 dead – the equivalent of the entire population of County Galway – and hundreds of thousands more in need. For people who have already had the lifelines of food, fuel and medicine blocked for years, this attack on Hodeida means only one thing – more death, more destruction and more needless suffering. "
 
“Since 2015, we have reached more that 2.8 million people across Yemen with life-saving supplies, including water, sanitation, food and cash assistance – and we’ll work to reach even more as the fallout of the attack on Hodeidah port becomes clear. "
 
“It’s vital that the hundreds of thousands of people affected by this violence are able to access life-saving support. We’re calling for the Irish government and world leaders to take action to urge all parties to the conflict to do everything possible to protect civilians and avoid hindering humanitarian access, a critical obligation under international humanitarian law.”
 
Oxfam has been in Yemen since 1983. Since 2015, Oxfam has reached more than 2.8 million people in nine governorates of Yemen, providing water and sanitation services – including as part of a cholera response to prevent and contain the disease. Oxfam is also trucking water as well as providing cash assistance and food vouchers. 
 
ENDS
 
Oxfam spokespeople available for interview in the region and in Dublin.
 
For more information or to arrange an interview, contact: Alice Dawson-Lyons, +353 83 198 1869, alice.dawsonlyons@oxfamireland.org
 
NOTES TO EDITORS
 
Oxfam is calling for the parties to the conflict in Yemen to: 
immediately cease violence to prevent further humanitarian suffering, including loss of life and risk of famine;
avoid undermining opportunity for the resolution of the conflict through dialogue rather than military means;
ensure dialogue for conflict resolution is inclusive of diversity of Yemeni population and includes voice and meaningful participation of women in keeping with UN resolutions on women, peace and security;
protect and facilitate the delivery of humanitarian aid and protection in Yemen without risk to aid personnel delivering it or the civilian population in accessing it.
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