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20 Million Lives Threatened by Famine

Timely warning by the United Nations has emerged as the vital nudge that world leaders need to initiate action to ward off an impending humanitarian catastrophe in parts of Africa and the Middle East. The global agency fears that if urgent steps are not taken, a population of more than 20 million people in four countries, including Nigeria, risk possible mass starvation and death. The other countries are Somalia and South Sudan, in the Horn of Africa, and Yemen, in the Arabian Peninsula.

It is another opportunity for the world to demonstrate common humanity. There were times in the past when failure to act decisively produced calamitous outcomes, as was the case in the Rwandan genocide of 1994, when an estimated 800,000 people were massacred in 100 days. A repeat should not be allowed.

The $4bn needed to stave off this calamity may seem humongous, but it is an amount that can be easily raised if there is a genuine commitment to save lives. It is a mere pittance compared to what states like the United States and China earmark for defence every year.  A February report by ALJAZEERA put America’s defence budget at $600bn annually, while that of China is $214bn. Even Saudi Arabia, one of the actors in the aerial bombardments of Yemen, has a defence budget of $87bn for this year. Some of these countries are ready to sell or even donate weapons to sustain conflicts rather than contribute to save humanity from their consequences.

For Africa, a continent blighted by conflicts, poor governance, corruption and poverty, this promises to be a defining moment. While the United Nations sees the crisis as a global challenge, and is looking far and wide for solutions, there is still much that can be done by the affected countries themselves to mitigate the impact of what has been described by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees as “the largest humanitarian crisis since the creation of the United Nations.”

It is not surprising that the real reason behind the crunch has been identified as a mix of drought and conflict. Therefore, while the countries concerned might not be able to do much to stem the tide of the drought and failed harvests, there is so much that they can do to scale down the conflict level and usher in stability. With stability in governance spurring rise in economic activities, doubtlessly, famine in the affected places would be effectively curtailed.

South Sudan is a typical example of a country whose development has been hobbled by war. Blessed with oil and arable land for agriculture, the country has failed the test of nationhood as a result of incessant wars. Despite engaging in the longest civil war on the continent – starting even before the independence of Sudan in 1956 – separation from the North has failed to usher in peace. Most adults there have never known a settled life since they were born.

According to the United States Committee for Refugees and Immigrants, the second civil war in Sudan alone claimed nearly two million lives by conservative estimates, with a civilian death toll considered to be the heaviest since World War II. Over four million South Sudanese were displaced, paving the way for sustained famine and underdevelopment.

The same goes for Yemen and Somalia, two countries torn apart by years of insurgency and civil strife. While six million people are said to be in need of humanitarian assistance in Somalia, a BBC report put the number in Yemen at 18 million, about 70 per cent of the entire population. This is very challenging for a country described as one of the poorest in the world, which has also suffered escalated conflict since the Arab Spring that precipitated the ouster of the president, Ali Abdullah Saleh, in 2012.

Besides attacks by the Houthis, an Iran-backed Shiite insurgency movement that successfully forced the resignation of the Mansour Hadi government in 2015, a coalition of about nine mainly Sunni Arab states, led by Saudi Arabia, has been involved in aerial bombardments of the devastated territory. Yemen has become a battlefield in a proxy war by those interested in restoring Hadi, a former deputy to Saleh, and those resisting it. A deadly combination of contending political forces and terror groups such as Islamic State and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has spawned an unprecedented humanitarian crisis that is getting worse by the day.

However, unlike the other war-ravaged countries, Nigeria, as the only state with a stable government, should have no business with famine despite the seemingly endless war waged against Islamist terrorists in the North-East. But the internally displaced people in the country were already dying of starvation and malnutrition even before the UN alarm.

A report last year by the medical charity, Doctors Without Borders, painted a very bad picture of the crisis in Borno, Adamawa and Yobe states, the epicentre of the terror war. Head of the organisation’s mission in Nigeria, Ghada Hatim, said in June that the condition had led to avoidable deaths. “We were told (that) more than 30 people were dying a day due to hunger and illness,” said Hatim.

Part of the solutions will be how to quickly adapt sensors, robotics and Artificial Intelligence to agricultural planning and development. It is said that robots can gather data in agricultural fields with an unprecedented level of accuracy and timeliness that can be used to help solve the world’s looming food crisis. While intensifying efforts to provide humanitarian assistance in these places, international mediatory efforts should also give priority to conflict resolution. This will enable the people to return to their normal lives where they can effectively fend for themselves. Besides, arrangement should be in place to ensure that whatever aid is meat for people in the affected areas get to them.  Efforts should also be made to provide clean water to the camps to avert the outbreak of epidemic, especially of diseases such as cholera and Lassa fever, common yearly in that part of the country during the rainy season. There should also be enough medical facilities in case of any health emergency.


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Copyright 2017 SIGNAL. Permission to use portions of this article is granted provided appropriate credits are given to and other relevant sources.


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