The media, academics and humanitarian agencies all use varying methods for determining famine. Nicolas Haan of the UN Food and Agriculture Agency says his group, the Food and Security Analysis Unit for Somalia (FSAU), uses five criteria. He told Voice of America reporter William Eagle they include the following categories, from least severe to most critical: food secure, chronically food insecure, acute food and livelihood crisis, humanitarian emergency, and – at the very worst – famine and humanitarian catastrophe.
Haan says his agency defines famine as a situation where there are four deaths per 10 thousand people per day. That would also mean about six thousand people out of half a million dying per month. He says such conditions existed in Somalia in the early to mid-1990’s. in Ethiopia in 1984, and today in the Democratic Republic of Congo. He says the western Sudanese province of Darfur, the site of civil conflict, could be either in or nearing a state of famine.
Haan’s colleague, Noreen Prendiville, is the chief technical advisor to the FSAU. She says nutritionists can sometimes help evaluate whether a population is susceptible to famine: “We can at least at the beginning of a crisis say what condition people are already in…. The most badly affected areas of the Horn of Africa have already got some of the highest malnutrition rates in the world. So these are populations that are in no condition to face further crisis and food insecurity.”
Haan rates Somalia today as a humanitarian emergency: “This is where people’s lives are at stake; we are not seeing large numbers of people dying, but it does require an urgent humanitarian response.“
He says the FSAU issued a very clear early warning in November that there was a high risk of humanitarian emergency conditions in Somalia between the months of January and June: “Here we are right now, and sure enough, there are humanitarian emergencies going on, so the early warning message was clear and on the mark. And now we’re communicating to decision makers that there is a high risk of famine conditions between July and December if these next rains fail.”
Following the warning, analysts say it’s now up to decision makers to make contingency plans for what could become a deadly humanitarian crisis.