The U.N. secretary-general said Thursday that more than 88 million people were suffering from acute hunger in countries affected by conflict and instability at the end of 2020, and at least 34 million of them face possible famine this year.
“Today, I have one simple message: If you don’t feed people, you feed conflict,” Antonio Guterres told a meeting of the U.N. Security Council on the links between war and hunger. “Conflict drives hunger and famine. And hunger and famine drive conflict.”
He said 34 million people in over three dozen countries were just a step away from famine. Famine is already present in pockets of some countries.
“Parts of Yemen, South Sudan and Burkina Faso are in the grip of famine or conditions akin to famine,” Guterres said. “More than 150,000 people are at risk of starving.”
The Nobel Prize committee recognized the link between hunger and conflict, awarding the World Food Program (WFP) its prestigious Peace Prize in 2020. Last year, the agency reached 114 million people with food assistance — the highest in its history. This year, it needs $5.5 billion just to avert famine.
For years now, Yemen has been the world’s largest humanitarian crisis. Currently, more than 16 million people are in need of assistance; 5 million are on the verge of famine; and 50,000 are already starving. All the suffering is manmade — with armed conflict, blockades and restrictions on humanitarian access among the factors.
“These aren’t just numbers, they are real people,” WFP Executive Director David Beasley said Thursday. “We are heading straight toward the biggest famine in modern history. It is hell on earth in many places in Yemen right now.”
But as bad as Yemen is, the Democratic Republic of the Congo is poised to overtake it in terms of sheer need.
“This year, it [the DRC] is set to become the world’s largest hunger emergency, with 19.6 million people facing crisis, emergency or catastrophic levels of food insecurity — up from 15.6 million people a year ago,” Beasley told council members.
In Afghanistan, nearly 17 million people are food insecure, he said, and in Nigeria, 13 million. Syria, which is entering its second decade of civil war on Monday, has more than 12 million people facing crisis levels of hunger.
Beasley spoke about South Sudan, which he visited last month. More than 7 million people there face acute levels of hunger or worse. He told the council he had received “heart-rending” reports from Western Pibor, where famine-like conditions have been identified because of a combination of fighting and two years of unprecedented floods.
“In Western Pibor, in extreme circumstances, mothers are resorting to feeding their children with the skin of dead animals — or even mud. Can you imagine?” Beasley asked.
“These looming famines have two things in common: They are primarily driven by conflict, and they are entirely preventable,” he said of the many crises.
He noted that the consequences have a far-reaching impact, causing economic deterioration, destabilization, mass migration and starvation.
New crisis on the horizon
The United Nations has expressed deep concern about the unfolding humanitarian crisis in Ethiopia’s Tigray Region. Four months of fighting between federal forces and the region’s former ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), has exacerbated an already grave situation, as food supplies are running out and malnutrition is rising.
More than a million people were already dependent on food aid before the fighting began in November. Now, WFP says the number could be higher than 3 million.
“I am deeply concerned about the situation in Tigray, Ethiopia, where the harvest season has been disrupted by insecurity and violence, and hundreds of thousands of people could be experiencing hunger,” Guterres said.
The United States, which chairs the Security Council this month and organized Thursday’s special session, called on “all sides” in Ethiopia to stop fighting.
“Actors in Ethiopia, including Eritrean forces from across Ethiopia’s borders, have restricted humanitarian access to the rural areas where the most Tigrayans live,” U.S. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield said. “We cannot allow this situation to deteriorate further.”
In a written statement to council members, Ethiopia’s U.N. envoy, Taye Atske Selassie, blamed the TPLF for the food shortages, saying it had destroyed infrastructure and displaced civilians. He said the government was willing to engage constructively with the international community.
Also during the session, Guterres announced that he was creating a “High-Level Task Force on Preventing Famine,” to be led by his humanitarian chief, Mark Lowcock. It will include representatives from the WFP and the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization. The task force will coordinate high-level attention on famine prevention and mobilize support to the most affected countries.