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, it has been warned.
UN refugee agency the UNHCR said some 20 million people, more than a 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.
He pointed 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.
The UNHCR said seven million people in northern Nigeria are struggling with food insecurity.
Two months after South Sudan declared a famine amid its civil war, hunger has become more widespread than expected, aid workers said. 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 said conditions will only deteriorate as the lean season approaches. In February, South Sudan and the United Nations formally declared a famine in two counties in Unity State. Northern Bahr el Ghazal’s five counties now face the same fate.
“All five counties are sliding into catastrophe,” said an aid worker. “If it wasn’t for food assistance, this place would be at a level five famine.”
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 fuelled by the conflict, harsh climate conditions and its remoteness, the region has become severely affected by hunger.
“I’m worried that one day I’ll die with my children because we can’t get food,” said young mother Abuk Garang as she stared at her son’s emaciated legs. “We’ve only eaten leaves for three days,” she said. “If there’s no food, he’ll die.”
When she heard that food was being distributed in a nearby town, she and thousands of others flocked there in desperation. After hours of waiting, she beamed and pointed to her new bag of sorghum, then shielded her face, embarrassed by her excitement.
One by one, others staggered into aid group World Vision’s food distribution compound. Some had hobbled through the bush on one good leg, while others had walked for hours with bloody feet under the sweltering sun.
A steady stream of women with weak children strapped to their backs and babies attempting to nurse could be seen for miles.
World Vision last week rolled out the first phase of a programme to provide 65,000 people in Aweil East county with food during the month of April. The aim is to start with 17,000 of the most severely malnourished and vulnerable people.