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Famine’s frontiers: Why the UN is warning Africa and Yemen are at risk of starvation

Violence, drought and famine are putting millions at deadly risk and threaten to turn millions more into refugees. Here’s what’s at stake in the crises in Somalia, Sudan, Yemen and Nigeria

A malnourished child is fed a special formula by her mother at a regional hospital in Baidoa town, the capital of Bay region of southwestern Somalia.

Overview: What’s happening in the region

The UN’s refugee agency says the risk of mass deaths from starvation is growing in parts of East Africa, Yemen and Nigeria due to a combination of conflict, drought and a shortfall in humanitarian aid funding to help beleaguered populations cope.

In a report Tuesday, the UNHCR said some 20 million people, more than one-fifth of them refugees, live in areas affected by drought. The agency is raising its projections for displacement from South Sudan and Somalia. Spokesman Adrian Edwards cited a “particularly pernicious combination” of factors in the areas, pointing to the “world’s biggest humanitarian crisis” in Yemen, conflicts in South Sudan and Somalia, and violence and instability caused by radical group Boko Haram in Nigeria and the Lake Chad basin.

Here’s a deeper look at the humanitarian crises in the region and what experts warn could happen if they aren’t addressed.

South Sudan

‘If there’s no food, he’ll die’

Newly arrived refugees from South Sudan receive a portion of sorghum at the Ngomoromo border post, in Ugandan side, on April 10, 2017.

Two months after the world’s youngest nation declared a famine amid its civil war, hunger has become more widespread than expected, aid workers say.

South Sudan’s Northern Bahr el Ghazal region is on the brink of starvation, with 290,000 people at risk of dying without sustained food assistance. Humanitarian workers say conditions will only deteriorate as the lean season approaches in June and July.

Northern Bahr el Ghazal and its 1.4 million residents have remained relatively peaceful during South Sudan’s three-year civil war. But due to soaring inflation fueled by the conflict, harsh climate conditions and its remoteness, this region has become severely affected by hunger. Local community leaders said 200,000 metric tons of food is still needed for Northern Bahr el Ghazal.

Adel Bol, 20, cradles her 10-month-old daughter Akir Mayen at a food distribution site in Malualkuel in the Northern Bahr el Ghazal region of South Sudan on April 5, 2017.

“Yesterday we didn’t eat anything at all,” 20-year-old Adel Bol told Associated Press. Like so many others, she had heard there was food and quickly came running. Cradling her 10-month-old daughter, she lifted the baby’s shirt to reveal her protruding ribs. Akir Mayen’s bald head is twice the size of her skeletal body. She flailed her arms, trying to clutch at her mother’s chest. “If she dies,” Ms. Bol said, “I’ll never give birth again.”

Abuk Garang holds her seven-month-old son William Deng as she and others walk to a food distribution site in Malualkuel, South Sudan.

“I’m worried that one day I’ll die with my children because we can’t get food,” said Abuk Garang. The young mother stared at her son’s emaciated legs while he anxiously tugged at her breasts. The boy, William Deng, was born in September, yet he looks more like a newborn. Unable to draw any milk, the child chokes back tears and begins gnawing on his fist.

Garang tries to console him, but she knows he’s famished. “We’ve only eaten leaves for three days,” she said. “If there’s no food, he’ll die.”


On the brink of starvation, Somalis make impossible choices

Zeinab, 14, attends a class at a school near a camp for internally displaced people from drought-hit areas in Dollow, Somalia, on April 3, 2017. Zeinab’s mother traded her freedom for the lives of her sisters. ‘without the money from the dowry, we would all have died.’

In Somalia, the United Nations says more than half the 12 million population need aid. A similar drought in 2011, exacerbated by years of civil war, sparked the world’s last famine, which killed 260,000 people. Now the country teeters on the brink again.

After two years of poor rains, with crops withered and the white bones of livestock scattered across the Horn of Africa nation Somali families are facing desperate choices – and for some, marrying off their loved ones to feed themselves is a tempting option. Read more on the difficult decisions Somalis face below.


In Boko Haram’s trail of destruction, famine follows

Returnees who had fled from Boko Haram militants carry basketfuls of tomatoes harvested from Food and Agriculture Organization-supported farms at Jere community, 11 kilometres from Maiduguri, in Borno state, northeast Nigeria, on April 6, 2017.

The Islamist militant group Boko Haram has killed 15,000 people and displaced more than two million during a seven-year insurgency aimed at creating an Islamic state in Nigeria. A regional force that includes troops from Niger has retaken much of its territory in the last two years. In recent years its attacks have spilled into neighboring Niger, Cameroon and Chad.

But Nigeria’s other big problem is food insecurity, the UNHCR’s report warned Tuesday. In the country’s north, some seven million people are food-insecure, with millions more expected to be at risk by June in Borno state – Boko Haram’s traditional northeastern stronghold – as well as the states of Adamawa and Yobo.


On a starving, war-torn coast, piracy makes a comeback

A woman sits with her daughter near their tent at a camp for internally displaced people in Dharawan, near the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, on Feb. 28, 2017.

The Yemen conflict pits Shia Houthi rebels and allied forces against a Saudi-led coalition. The coalition began an air campaign in March 2015 to restore the internationally recognized government that fled the country after Houthis seized the capital. Jamie McGoldrick, the UN’s humanitarian aid official in Yemen, said in January that the civilian death toll in the nearly two-year conflict has reached 10,000, with 40,000 others wounded.

With war and famine draining the resources of Yemen’s military, piracy has made a comeback in the waters off Yemen and Somalia, one of the world’s crucial sea trade routes. Piracy has lessened in recent years after an international effort to patrol near Somalia, and in December, NATO ended its anti-piracy mission off Somalia’s waters. But in March, Somali pirates hijacked a Comoros-flagged oil tanker, marking the first such seizure of a large commercial vessel since 2012. They later released the vessel and its Sri Lankan crew without conditions.


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