On Monday, our worst fears came to pass when it was confirmed that South Sudan is in famine. The announcement, by the United Nations and the government of South Sudan, confirms that 100,000 people in the country are experiencing famine. Worryingly, this figure is likely to rise dramatically over the coming months.
We could be facing into a crisis of unimaginable scale. The Famine Early Warning System Network estimates that 70 million people will require emergency food assistance this year.
In South Sudan, roughly 5.5 million people, or about 50 per cent of the population, are expected to be severely food insecure and at risk of death in the months ahead. Over 250,000 children are severely malnourished.
Given the seriousness of the situation, it is remarkable that it has received so little attention or political debate. Alarm bells should have been ringing for months but sadly the emerging crisis has received very little focus from a distracted international community. The combined magnitude, severity, and geographic scope of anticipated emergency food aid ahead is unprecedented in recent decades.
The failure of the October to December rains has left a trail of hunger in its wake. With the spring rains also expected to be weak, people in the region are facing into at least six months of extreme hunger.
Even outside the famine-affected areas, food stocks are far below what would be expected for this time of year.
International warning systems classify hunger under five categories of severity, from food secure (phase one) to famine (phase five). Currently, most of South Sudan and Somalia are in at least phase three (crisis), with large swaths of the countries already in phase four (emergency). Monday's announcement confirms that parts of the country have entered the most critical phase.
Despite this, UN attempts to generate donations from global governments have so far largely fallen on deaf ears. Last week the UN issued an appeal for $1.6 billion (€1.5bn) for South Sudan alone but an earlier appeal for Somalia remains desperately underfunded. Global indifference to this situation is deeply troubling.
The drought has compounded difficulties in a country already racked by conflict. Nearly two million people have been internally displaced as a result of fighting. That displacement has severely damaged food production systems. Over 450,000 people have fled the country since July, bringing the number of refugees to 1.3 million.
In Somalia, the situation is just as bleak. Despite some positive political progress over recent months, which follows 25 years of conflict and instability, people in Somalia are incredibly vulnerable to rainfall shortages.
About five million people in Somalia need aid. We may yet see a repeat of the 2011 famine in which 260,000 people died. Already, 320,000 children under five are acutely malnourished.
The drought has affected the entire belt of that region, from South Sudan, across southern Ethiopia and northern Kenya, into Somalia.
Last year, the north of Ethiopia was badly affected by the El Niño drought. This year, the south of the country is suffering. The Ethiopian government responded well to last year’s crisis, spending about $700 million of its own money on providing aid to its citizens. Responding on a similar scale so soon after will be a challenge.
Across the border in Kenya, the pastoral areas are rapidly moving into a crisis situation. A near total maize crop failure is expected in parts of the country. According to the Kenya Demographic Survey, five per cent of minors are suffering from wasting and a further 11 per cent are underweight. In some regions, cases of underweight children stand at 40 per cent, a situation likely to deteriorate.
The next few weeks will likely determine whether this crisis lurches into complete catastrophe but the indications are not good. Rains are expected to be weak and the response from the international community has been frighteningly poor.
That combination leaves millions of people facing into the next few months wondering where the next meal is coming from.
Éamonn Meehan is executive director of Trócaire