The UN has sounded a global alarm: famine has been declared in parts of South Sudan while Nigeria, Somalia and Yemen are teetering on the brink. So what does ‘famine’ really mean - and how on earth has it come to this, again?

It’s not a word we use lightly.

‘Famine’ is reserved for the worst possible food crisis. In fact, international agencies have agreed on a scientific definition to ensure the term isn’t exploited.  

A declaration of famine means three terrible things:

1. At least one in five households has an extreme lack of food. They can only access one or two of the 12 food groups, so they may be eating very small amounts of basic grains but no vegetables, meats or legumes. Their livelihoods have almost completely collapsed, they can’t access four litres of safe water per person, per day and they have simply run out of ways to cope.
In South Sudan, families are resorting to ‘famine foods’ with little nutritional value. Athill-Chok’s family (left) is surviving on the seeds from a common grass that grows around their shelter, while another mother (right) picks a bowl of wild leaves to cook for her children’s dinner. © UNICEF/UN034412/Rich; © UNICEF/UN056590/Knowles-Coursin

2. More than 30% of children under the age of five are acutely malnourished. Without enough of the right nutrition, their bodies have wasted to a very low weight and are in serious danger of shutting down.

3. Children are already dying. The community is losing more than four out of 10,000 children every day.

Above all, the word ‘famine’ signals one message to the world: we have a small window to prevent a massive loss of life.
Khadija’s arms are little wider than her mother’s thumb. Boko Haram’s violence has brought northeast Nigeria desperately close to famine and left this one year old girl with severe acute malnutrition. “We have no food,” says her mother, Fatima. “I fell sick myself and could not breastfeed. I could only comfort her, hold her when she cried.” UNICEF is urgently delivering therapeutic milk and food to help children survive this crisis. © UNICEF/UN044773/Commins

It’s 2017. How is this still going on?

These are extraordinary times.

The current famine in parts of South Sudan is the first to strike anywhere in the world since 2011. And, as the same catastrophe looms over Nigeria, Somalia and Yemen, this is the first time in history children have faced the threat of four famines striking at once.

These communities are not starving simply because they are poor. Yes, they have struggled through severe and persistent poverty but they have also worked hard to produce their own crops, raise healthy livestock and trade with other countries to import the food they need to live.
Families are starving because years of war and drought have crushed their livelihoods.
"I am breastfeeding him but I have two other children and I worry about our food,” says Ayak, a 25-year-old mother in Aweil, South Sudan. “Before it was simple to feed them. Our cultivation was good because of the good rains but that isn't the same anymore. The rains are changing a lot and the prices keep rising in the market." © UNICEF/UN057602/Knowles-Coursin

In South Sudan, escalating conflict and poor rains have ruined farms and forced families to flee their homes, assets and only source of income. More than one million children have fled the country as refugees and another million are displaced within the country. The economy is collapsing and the price of food staples has skyrocketed 10 times higher.

Parents are left with an impossible dilemma: they can no longer farm their own food and they can’t afford to buy it either. They’ve run out of ways to feed their children.

It’s a similar story in Nigeria, where Boko Haram’s violence is forcing farmers off their lands and destroying the food supply. In Somalia, a severe drought has left crops and livestock withering into the dirt. And in Yemen, ruthless attacks on ports are preventing communities from importing food, while two years of war have left the country’s health system on the verge of failure.

Together, this represents the largest humanitarian crisis since the creation of the United Nations in 1945.
A staggering 22 million children across four countries have been left hungry, sick, displaced and out of school. Humanitarians know exactly how to help them.

Research shows that emergency efforts by the World Food Programme (WFP), UNICEF and partners has already helped to avert a famine and save lives in some regions of South Sudan. Our teams can prevent a famine when they have enough resources and unrestricted access to children.

But the enormity of this crisis has stretched UNICEF to the limit. We have less than half of the funds we need to get the job done. Without more emergency supplies, our best efforts will not be enough.

We can still avert the worst of this unfolding catastrophe

1.4 million children are severely malnourished and at imminent risk of death but UNICEF is working around the clock to save as many lives as we can, as fast as we can.

Our teams are treating severely malnourished children with therapeutic food - a peanut paste specially formulated with the micronutrients children need to survive and grow.
We’re supporting mobile health clinics to reach children in remote communities with life-saving medical care and immunisations. We’re providing safe water, sanitation and hygiene supplies to stop the spread of disease.

Time is running out. UNICEF needs you now.

Help us reach further, faster and save a child’s life. Please give generously.
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