The world faces the largest humanitarian crisis since the end of the second world war with more than 20 million people in four countries facing starvation and famine, a senior United Nations official has warned.
Without collective and coordinated global efforts, “people will simply starve to death” and “many more will suffer and die from disease”, Stephen O’Brien, the UN under secretary-general for humanitarian affairs, told the security council in New York.
He urged an immediate injection of funds for Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia and northeast Nigeria plus safe and unimpeded access for humanitarian aid “to avert a catastrophe.”
“To be precise,” O’Brien said, “we need $4.4bn by July”.
Unless there was a major infusion of money, he said, children would be stunted by severe malnutrition and would not be able to go to school, gains in economic development would be reversed and “livelihoods, futures and hope lost”.
UN and food organizations define famine as when more than 30% of children under age 5 suffer from acute malnutrition and mortality rates are two or more deaths per 10,000 people every day, among other criteria.
“Already at the beginning of the year we are facing the largest humanitarian crisis since the creation of the United Nations [in 1945],” O’Brien said. “Now, more than 20 million people across four countries face starvation and famine.”
O’Brien said the largest humanitarian crisis was in Yemen where two-thirds of the population — 18.8 million people — need aid and more than seven million people are hungry and did not know where their next meal would come from. “That is three million people more than in January,” he said.
For 2017, O’Brien said $2.1bn was needed to reach 12 million Yemenis “with life-saving assistance and protection” but only 6% has been received so far. He announced that secretary-general Antonio Guterres will chair a pledging conference for Yemen on 25 April in Geneva.
The UN humanitarian chief also visited South Sudan, the world’s newest nation which has been ravaged by a three-year civil war, and said “the situation is worse than it has ever been.”
O’Brien said more than 7.5 million people need aid, up by 1.4 million from last year, and about 3.4 million South Sudanese are displaced by fighting including almost 200,000 who have fled the country since January.
“More than one million children are estimated to be acutely malnourished across the country, including 270,000 children who face the imminent risk of death should they not be reached in time with assistance,” he said. “Meanwhile, the cholera outbreak that began in June 2016 has spread to more locations.”
In Somalia, which O’Brien also visited, more than half the population — 6.2 million people — need humanitarian assistance and protection, including 2.9 million who are at risk of famine and require immediate help “to save or sustain their lives.”
He warned that close to one million children under the age of five would be “acutely malnourished” this year.
“To be clear, we can avert a famine,” O’Brien said. “We’re ready despite incredible risk and danger … but we need those huge funds now.”
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