Quick facts: What you need to know about famine

Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, Yemen, March 6, 2017

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  • Abubakar, 12 (right), says he gets dizzy with hunger. “I see in a hazy way, because of the hunger. Nothing appears clear, anytime I am hungry.” Photo: Corinna Robbins/Mercy Corps

For around 20 million people from Africa to the Middle East, severe hunger is a daily reality.

For some, the risk of starvation is even greater. Since late 2016, conditions in Nigeria indicate that famine has occurred and might be ongoing. In South Sudan, famine has been declared, and in Somalia and Yemen there is a high risk of famine in 2017. Without immediate support, 1.4 million of those at imminent risk of death are children.

Unfortunately, this is not the first time that some of these areas have experienced famine. We’re acting fast to ensure that hungry families get the support they need.

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Get the facts about what famine is, and find out how you can help:

What does famine mean?
For a hunger crisis to be considered serious enough to be defined as a famine, certain specific criteria need to be met. Famine is declared in an area when 1 in 5 households or more lack adequate food and other basic needs and acute malnutrition is greater than 30% — meaning people are underweight and unable to access and eat enough nutritious food.

In these situations, starvation and death are evident. By the time a famine has been declared, people are already dying of hunger: There are two deaths per 10,000 people every day, or four child deaths per 10,000 children every day.

“What gets complicated is that if you don’t have the data, famine can’t be classified,” says Kate McMahon, Mercy Corps food security advisor. “That means famine could be in many places right now, but without this data it can’t be declared.” Hear more from our food security expert ▸

How is famine different than hunger?
Famine is the most disastrous form of widespread hunger. While famine must meet the criteria listed above, hunger is considered by the UN to be undernourishment that lasts at least one year where people are unable to consume enough food to maintain a healthy weight and continue necessary physical activity. Get the quick facts about global hunger ▸

When did this start?
FEWS NET (Famine Early Warning Systems Network) announced that famine likely occurred in Nigeria, and might be continuing in inaccessible areas of Borno State, in mid-December of 2016. Starting in January 2017, famine was listed as a possibility in South Sudan, Somalia and Yemen.

What causes famine?
The countries currently experiencing famine are all dealing with a complexity of disruptive events such as drought, conflict or social unrest, and high food costs. Historically, all have been plagued by decades of poverty, poor health and lack of basic infrastructure, including health care and education.

The debilitating conflicts in each country have forced many people to flee their homes. Farmers are unable to plant crops on their land and agricultural production has declined drastically. Further, families cannot always access the food they need without encountering people with weapons who stand between them and their basic necessities — and that’s if markets stay open. During conflict, many local markets shut down entirely, cutting people off from their primary sources of food.

Climate patterns play into famine, as well. La Niña has brought extreme weather conditions to the same areas ravaged by El Niño last year, with the opposite effect in each place: areas that faced drought are now facing flooding, and vice versa. Both are detrimental to farmers and the many people who rely on them. It’s possible that these conditions will get worse as global warming intensifies, making famine even more likely.

When was the last major famine?
The last major famine occurred between 2011 and 2012 in the Horn of Africa and primarily affected the countries of Somalia, Ethiopia and Kenya. At its peak, more than 13 million people were in need of emergency assistance. Low rainfall paired with rising inflation and armed conflict made food and water scarce across the region.

In Somalia alone, almost 260,000 people died over the course of the famine. About half of them were children under the age of 5.

How is the current famine different from 2011?
It’s likely bigger. 13 million people were at risk last time — this time the number has increased to 20 million people.

Who is the most vulnerable when famine strikes?
People who already lack adequate food are at the greatest risk when famine occurs. Among them, children and pregnant and nursing women are the most vulnerable. While children need sustenance to grow their bodies and pregnant and nursing women need to sustain their children, sometimes families choose to first provide food to the primary wage earner.

"There’s food out there in the world, but we must have the will and the money to get it to people."

Kate McMahon, Mercy Corps food security advisor

What is happening to people in famine-affected areas?
In famine-affected areas, millions of people are malnourished and in desperate need of food and water. Millions are on the move in search of these resources, along with pastures where they can keep their livestock or fields where they can grow new crops.

People are skipping meals in order to make their food last longer, particularly mothers who have hungry children to feed. Some might only eat every other day. The weakest and most malnourished among them are dying.

How bad is this crisis?
13 million people were at risk of famine during the 2011 - 2012 Horn of Africa crisis. 20 million people are at risk during this one. Since this famine is projected to get even worse in the coming months, we need to invest even more heavily in our emergency response.

Read our CEO’s field report from South Sudan ▸

Why can’t people get more food?
There are a variety of reasons that people can’t get more food. There is either not enough food available to them due to high costs, or the people who produce food have been somehow prevented from growing their crops. Conflict has also forced people to leave their homes, which makes food security even more volatile.

“One of the big challenges to responding to a famine is resource,” says McMahon. “There’s food out there in the world, but we must have the will and the money to get it to people.”

What are the most urgent needs for people affected by famine?
People need food and water most urgently.

“We are at a tipping point. The point we’re at now — where people are already experiencing emergency levels of food insecurity — means that their situation is already really bad. We have to act now."

Kate McMahon, Mercy Corps food security advisor

What can people do to survive?
People begin by skipping a meal or two a day — they may eventually eat food every other day in order to make it last longer. Mothers in particular might choose to feed their children instead of themselves.

To find food, families might forage for wild plants, roots, leaves and even bark to eat boiled. Some might be able to hunt or fish if they have the necessary tools. They all live from day to day, hoping for more food tomorrow.

What will happen if the famine continues?
If the famine continues, more people will suffer from hunger and malnutrition — and the most vulnerable among them will die of starvation. Widespread death in these areas will occur. In places where famine is already taking place, there are two deaths per 10,000 people every day.

“We are at a tipping point,” says McMahon. “The point we’re at now — where people are already experiencing emergency levels of food insecurity — means that their situation is already really bad. We have to act now."

Are these countries getting enough assistance?

No. Between the UN and partner organisations like us, £3 billion is needed by the end of March in order to avoid catastrophic hunger — so far only £54 million has been received. Without an increase in new resources, the results could be deadly for tens of thousands of families. Millions more will continue to be hungry or malnourished.

Of the £1 billion needed for the Lake Chad region alone, UN member countries have pledged £403 million — a little more than a third of what is needed. With the United States in transition from a new administration, it has yet to pledge any funding. And, unfortunately, even pledged money isn’t always received.

In the U.S., £36 billion for the International Affairs budget would fund lifesaving foreign aid that is critical in providing immediate resources to respond to people’s basic needs and helping mitigate these crises in the future.

How cash aid helps Nigerian families survive ▸

How is Mercy Corps helping?
We’re already on the ground in all four countries providing urgently needed items like food, water and sanitation supplies. If possible, we deliver aid in the form of cash assistance so that families can buy the items they need most and improve the economy by introducing more cash into local markets and businesses.

Our team members are working hard to ensure that we can help as many people as possible. From giving vouchers to families for buying the essentials to offering nutrition classes, we are focused on mitigating hunger and improving conditions for these suffering populations.

We’re also helping to address the root causes of famine so that situations like these don’t happen again. Our work in resilience has shown promising evidence that a long-term approach to dealing with food insecurity strengthens communities and protects them from threats like famine.

As the number of people in need increases, we need your help now more than ever to provide them with critical resources. Here’s how you can make a difference for people coping with the threat of famine:

  • Donate today. Every single contribution helps us provide even more food, water, shelter and support to Syrian families and families in crisis around the world.
  • Sign the petition. Tell Congress not to cut international aid. Around the world, people are in need of livesaving assistance — including those affected by famine. We must continue to support them.
  • Tell your friends. Share this story or go to our Facebook page or Twitter page to post the infographic and spread the word about the millions who need us.