This is what happens when the world turns its back

This is what happens when the world turns its back

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Sam Bolitho

The United Nations says it threatens to be the worst humanitarian crisis since 1945 but chances are you haven’t heard much about it. About 20 million people are at risk of starvation across four countries, mostly in Africa. But whether because of the Trump media juggernaut, the machinations of Brexit or simply ‘compassion fatigue’, this catastrophe is not getting the attention it deserves nor the donations required to respond adequately.

I have just returned from South Sudan, the epicentre of the food crisis and where famine was declared earlier this year. Half the country’s population of 6 million are now dependent on food aid to survive, with many now subsisting on foraged wild food such as water lily roots. It can be just enough to sustain an adult but often indigestible for children, meaning they suffer the most.

At a hospital in Unity State, where CARE is providing emergency nutrition treatment, I met six-month-old Josephine*. Sitting in her mother’s lap, the bones of her ribcage were clearly visible, protruding from her chest; her arms no wider than a 20 cent piece. Despite her condition, Josephine greeted us with a beaming smile, showing off her new bottom teeth. But it was clear that without urgent treatment she would die. Josephine was suffering diarrhoea and vomiting. And her mother, facing food shortages herself, had been struggling to breastfeed.

“Usually they could use cow milk instead,” the doctor told me. “But when the fighting happened, their cattle were taken. So the children don’t get milk and the mothers don’t have money for supplements.”

In situations like this aid agencies can make an enormous difference. With a supply of a special, nutrient-rich peanut paste, in just weeks a severely malnourished child like Josephine can rapidly gain weight and fight off disease. And the paste costs just a few dollars. Not much to save a child’s life.

The UN has said it requires $6.3 billion to avert a humanitarian catastrophe in the countries hardest hit: South Sudan, Somalia, Nigeria and Yemen. But so far the appeal has faltered, with less than half the target funded. The gap means shortages of essential aid like emergency food, drinking water and medicine.

Often we wrongly assume major food crises like these are due to the fickle climate. The reality is that disaster on this scale is invariably due to a human cause: conflict. The only long term solution is peace. And regardless, none of it is the fault of children like Josephine.

South Sudan, which marked its sixth anniversary of independence last week (July 9), has been plagued by violence for much of its short history. It has resulted in a siege-like situation for innocent civilians. Trapped between front lines, it can be both too dangerous for people to flee and for aid to reach them. Fields lie empty due to the violence. People aren’t able to plant crops because they simply don’t know where they will be living when it is time to harvest or if it will be safe to do so. Seed stocks have been looted. And countless farmers have been forced from their land.

Meanwhile, an economic crisis has caused the price of household goods to skyrocket, with hyper-inflation of the South Sudanese Pound now sitting well above 300 per cent. To put this in perspective, a kilo of tomatoes now costs the average worker in South Sudan up to 10 per cent of their monthly salary. In Australian terms, that would be like paying $500 per kilo. Basic staples are out of reach for most.

So it is not surprising 1.6 million people have fled the country. The biggest refugee exodus in Africa since the 1994 Rwanda genocide. Most families end up in neighbouring Uganda, which as UN chief António Guterres has pointed out, has welcomed refugees with compassion and empathy rather than barriers.

The Australian Government has so far been generous in its response to this regional food crisis, pledging $68 million in the past year. But when you consider the scale of this disaster, and the logistical challenges, you realise just how much more support will be needed.

South Sudan has no national power grid, everything from hospitals to offices are powered by generators.  It is a country roughly the size of France yet has only one paved road – a 200km stretch from the capital Juba to the Ugandan border. Most of the country is linked only by dirt tracks which are impassable during the rainy season. This, coupled with insecurity on the roads, means aid often has to be delivered by air which is expensive and time consuming.

When famine was declared in Somalia in 2011, there was criticism international donors were too slow to react. An estimated 260,000 people starved to death. After that crisis, we said ‘never again’. A sentiment expressed after the 1984 Ethiopian famine and countless other catastrophes since World War Two. After each event, there was an international consensus that such atrocities must be prevented.

Yet today we are on the cusp of one of the largest global humanitarian crises in living memory. We have an opportunity to stop history from repeating. But first, we need to start paying attention.

Sam Bolitho, of Canberra, is part of CARE Australia’s emergency response team

*Names have been changed for the protection of children and their families.

How can a crisis this big be overlooked? When we have all the resources we need and then some, how can this child still starve? Credit: Josh Estey/CARE