New UN head calls for ‘decisive action’ as expanding famine stalks millions in Yemen, Africa

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metzlerBy John J. Metzler

UNITED NATIONS — “More than 20 million people in South Sudan, Somalia, Yemen and northeast Nigeria are going hungry, and facing devastating levels of food insecurity,” warned UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres.

In a stunning and passionate plea for famine relief in the drought and conflict ridden regions, Guterres stressed, “We’re facing a tragedy; we must avoid it becoming a catastrophe.” Over 1.4 million children remain at risk of death from famine.

Broom-maker and former fisherman Taie al-Nahari in al-Qaza village, Yemen. His fishing boats were bombed. / Abdullkareem Alayashy / Guardian
Broom-maker and former fisherman Taie al-Nahari in al-Qaza village, Yemen. His fishing boats were bombed. / Abdullkareem Alayashy / Guardian

Guterres cautioned, “This is preventable if the international community takes decisive action.”

Addressing the media with a high-profile humanitarian panel including the UN’s Emergency Relief Coordinator Stephen O’Brien, the Secretary General spoke of five million people in South Sudan and a further five million in northeast Nigeria who face serious food shortages.

He particularly highlighted Yemen in the Arabian peninsula; “Yemen is facing the largest food insecurity emergency in the world, with an estimated 7.3 million people needing help now.”

In all these cases, insurgencies against already fragile governments are part of the equation.

Yemen, for example, has seen civil conflict between government forces supported by a Saudi Arabian coalition and Iranian backed Islamic rebels. The Secretary General called on all parties to the conflicts to “respect humanitarian law.”

In Yemen, the food insecurity is “staggering,” with 65 percent of households estimated to be food insecure; more than 460,000 children are suffering from acute malnutrition.

Yemen has emerged as a hotbed of Al-Qaida operations. Moreover Yemen also hosts Islamic State terrorists. Since 2014 this mountainous land on the nexus of the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden has drifted into protracted civil war.

Despite the daunting humanitarian task plaguing these restive regions, a shortfall of emergency relief funding has hit UN relief agencies. While the Secretary General stresses that $5.6 billion is needed for 2017 with a $4 billion budget needed by the end of March “to avert a catastrophe,” the stark truth remains that only $90 million has been received thus far. “That’s around two cents for every dollar needed,” Guterres lamented.

He warned that not acting now would create a larger humanitarian danger in the near future. “This is a dramatic emergency situation and it needs a response.”

When asked whether donor fatigue among UN member states is part of the problem creating the aid shortfall, the Secretary General surprisingly said that it’s not a case of “donor fatigue” but widening and increasing challenges and crises whether from the El Nino weather pattern affecting rainfall, and the persistence of entrenched armed conflicts.

Stephen O’Brien added that “food, nutrition, water” are needed in the affected regions to provide people with “durable resilience”.

The Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) stated bluntly: “Protracted conflicts also mean continuous, slow and even at times rapid, erosion of people’s food security and nutrition.”

As recently as 2011, over 260,000 people died from famine in Somalia. But beyond famine, the country has suffered political turmoil since 1991. The conflict is fueled by and entrenched Al-Qaida linked Al Shabaab Islamic militia which controls large parts of the strategic East African land.

In northeastern Nigeria, Boko Haram Islamic militants have until recently been operating in rural regions and have destabilized food production. A FAO report warns that “The Boko Haram conflict has had a huge impact on agriculture as a result of the large-scale population displacement and the restrictions imposed on agricultural activities.”

Addressing the wider challenge in four separate countries the Secretary General stressed, ”These four crises are very different, but they have one thing in common. They are all preventable. They all stem from conflict, which we must do much more to prevent and resolve.”

Here the new Secretary General who comes from Portugal returned to his primary mission focus; preventive diplomacy and a respect for humanitarian law. A noble goal in a chaotic world.

“The lives of millions of people depend on our collective ability to act,” the Secretary General implored, adding, “In our world of plenty, there is no excuse for inaction or indifference.”

John J. Metzler is a United Nations correspondent covering diplomatic and defense issues. He is the author of Divided Dynamism the Diplomacy of Separated Nations: Germany, Korea, China (2014). [See pre-2011 Archives]