Famines and the hunger crisis: What you need to know

In the midst of all the conflicting headlines you see each day, you've probably heard about hunger in Africa and the famine crisis there.

Here are a few basic facts about drought, famine, malnutrition and hunger in Africa as well as what World Vision is doing in response and how you can participate.

What's the current situation with the hunger crisis?

Millions of people are experiencing unprecedented food shortages and famine. A combination of conflict, reoccurring severe drought and high food prices are to blame.

For about 100,000 people in South Sudan, it's so bad the United Nations officially declared famine. Large areas of Somalia, Nigeria and Yemen are on the brink of famine, too. About 1.4 million children are severely acutely malnourished in these countries, the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs reports.

This means people are starving to death. Right now.

Severe drought and widespread food insecurity also are ravaging entire communities in Kenya, Ethiopia, Niger, Chad, Cameroon and parts of the Southern Africa region, according to the Famine Early Warning Systems Network.

In East Africa alone South Sudan, Kenya, Ethiopia and Somalia 22 million people need food assistance. More than 3.5 million children in the region are suffering from malnutrition, well above globally acceptable rates for hunger.

  • Kenya's government expects 4 million people will need help by July 2017; about 700,000 Kenyan children younger than five are facing starvation.
  • Ethiopian communities have been plauged with disease outbreaks amid worsening food insecurity.
  • Crop and livestock losses and water shortages in neighbouring Somalia have caused more than 440,000 people to leave their homes since November.

About 10.8 million people need humanitarian assistance in the Lake Chad Basin, which inclueds northeastern Nigeria, northern Cameroon, eastner Niger and southwestern Chad. More than 500,000 children are suffering severe levels of malnutrition. The refugee and food crises have swelled for two years due to ongoing extremist attacks and mass displacement in the region.

It will only get worse if nothing is done to help. Children, especially those younger than five, are the most vulnerable, because they need critical nutrients to build strength and immunity against disease.

How did the situation with hunger in Africa get like this?

It's really been the culmniation of several disruptive events that have led the affected communities to where they are now. Many of the countries in the region have struggled with extreme poverty for decades and lack basic infrastructure to help their struggling families.

Instability for farmers in South Sudan, for example, hinders crop production. That limits what is available at the market and raises food prices. Poor families then can't afford enough food to keep their children healthy, and eventually they need emergency help when they run out of money and food. We're not talking low funds or food that's been in our pantry that is well past expiration. We're talking actually not having any money or any food at all  nothing. 

The longer these factors persist, the less families are able to stave off the effects of lost livelihoods or homes.

VIDEO: Hunger is not just a stomach thing

I hear the word famine a lot, but how do you define famine?

Famine is the absolute worst-case scenario, and not all food crises are actually considered famine.

A community's food crisis becomes a famine when there's so little food anywhere that it causes large-scale starvation, malnutrition and death.

To declare famine, three things must all happen:

  • At least 20 percent of households in a given area face extreme food shortages with limited ability to cope.
  • More than 30 percent of children suffer from acute malnutrition.
  • Hunger causes more than two deaths each day for every 10,000 people.

Why does it seem like there's always hunger in Africa?

The factors mentioned above create a cycle that's extremely difficult to break. When instability persists because of conflict or political problems, people flee their homes or are unable to plant their crops. Less food gets harvested. Prices go up. Families' livelihood prospects dwindle as markets close. Violent conflict makes things even worse because humanitarian groups often cannot access affected communities to bring emergency relief.

Droughts and floods have become more frequent and intense in recent years in West, East and Southern Africa. Last year's El Niño has exacerbated agricultural, economic and food security problems. These droughts affect food-production systems in fragile contexts in similar ways to the conflict-related factors. Less food and water also means vast number of dead livestock in affected areas. This devastates families' source of income and food.

And when 40 percent of children in sub-Saharan Africa grow up stunted due to chronic malnutrition, they literally lack capacity to learn and contribute to society. Their brains are smaller becasue they didn't get enough of the right nutrients at the right time to promote growth. Therefore, their countries lose out on significant leadership and innovation potential, which perpetuates the human capital loss cycle.

VIDEO: Global Day of Prayer to End Famine

What is malnutrition?

Malnutrition develops when your body does not get enough of the vitamins, minerals and other nutrients it needs to function properly.

When these crises happen, some children become malnourished or wasted (being underweight for their age). Children who were already growing poorly when the food crisis began now risk becoming permanently stunted (being short for their age).

Those who are most at risk are experiencing severe acute malnutrition, known as severe wasting, according to World Vision's nutrition experts. Their little bodies are beginning to lose the ability to absorb vital nutrients. They're literally starving to death. And they're nine times more likely to die than a well-nourished child. These children don't just need more food. They need the right kind of foodnutrient-rich food treatment, commonly referred to as ready-to-use therapeutic food (RUTF).

Medical workers often measure a child's mid-upper arm circumference to guage the level of malnutrition the child is experiencing. That's why you may see photos of people wrapping a band with green, yellow and red sections around a malnourished child's tiny upper arm. Green indicates the child is not malnourished, yellow indicates malnourishment and red indicates severe malnourishment and risk of death.

Malnutrition is the cause or a contributing factor to 45 percent of deaths among children younger than five globally, according to the World Health Organisation.

Read more on the tragic, long-term effects of malnutrition.

How is World Vision responding to these hunger crises?

World Vision staff in Niger and Chad are working to help 300,000 people this year with emergency food aid, health and nutrition services, household items, and access to clean water. As of 31 March, we had reached about 31,722 beneficiaries, or 5,287 families.

World Vision has scaled up efforts in Kenya, Ethiopia, Somalia and South Sudan to reach up to 2.2 million people with life-saving food, clean water and sanitation services, medical assistance, and livelihood skills training. Here are some highlights from our four-country response so far:

  • 544,275 people reached with food-related assistance
  • 607,180 people reached with nutrition services
  • 197,908 people reached with water, sanitation and hygiene services
  • 95,120 children reached with protection and education interventions
  • 30,034 people reached with shelter and household items

Funding provided through child sponsorship programmes in Kenya and Ethiopia enabled our local staff there to observe communities' needs early, in 2016, before the crisis intensified. They responded accordingly, providing drought-resistant seeds and training for farmers, cash-for-work programmes and other interventions that help families avert crisis or weather it more confidently.

By the time the current food crisis becamse full-fledged, earlier this year, staff in South Sudan and Somalia were already helping communities struggling with food-insecurity and malnutrition due to conflict and years of persistsent drought.

When will people be able to get back to normal?

There's no substitute for lifesaving aid in an emergency. But World Vision also focuses on long-term solutions that build resilience so that families and communities have better options when crops fail and streams dry up. Livelihood skills training is one aspect of our current responses that helps families find their own way out of a food crisis.

With long-term development programmes in place, hunger crises can often be avoided, and families can maintain independence.

  • Farmers and pastoralists benefit from market development, immunisations for livestock, and training and seeds to grow drought-resistant crops.
  • Cash aid stimulates local markets while instilling choice and dignity for impoverished families.
  • Saving groups and community banks make loans that help members recover from emergencies.
  • Building and repairing water and sanitation facilities contributes to healthy living.
  • New business training, equipment and materials can help families diversify their income so their assets are not wiped out by drought or adverse weather.
  • Developing resilience is a generational process. Children who stay in school are better prepared for the challenges and opportunities in their future.

How can I help the hunger crisis in Africa?

We've got three ways you can help:

  1. Stay informed. Follow the latest hunger-related developments in west, east and southern Africa on our website.
  2. Pray for children and families affected by famine and hunger crises. Join World Vision and churches worldwide on 21 May 2017 in a Global Day of Prayer to End Famine.
  3. Help support life-saving aid by giving to our East Africa Hunger Crisis fund. Your gift will help provide emergency food aid, agricultural support, clean water, medicine and other essential care to hungry children and families.

Kathryn Reid, in the World Vision US office, contributed to this article.

Join churches worldwide responding to this crisis through the Global Day of Prayer to End Famine, a broad coalition of more than 100 faith-based organisations representing 1 billion Christians.