UNITED NATIONS — In a world filled with excess food, 20 million people are on the brink of famine, including 1.4 million children at imminent risk of death. In the face of such grim numbers, a stark question confronts the world’s most powerful: Why in 2017 can’t they avert such a seemingly archaic and preventable catastrophe?
Secretary General António Guterres of the United Nations raised the alarm Wednesday afternoon about the risk of famine in northern Nigeria, Somalia and Yemen. And this week, the United Nations declared famine in a patch of South Sudan.
“In our world of plenty there is no excuse for inaction or indifference,” Mr. Guterres said at a news conference, flanked by the heads of his aid agencies.
Each country facing famine is in war, or in the case of Somalia, recovering from decades of conflict.
What is famine?
Famine is a rare and specific state. It is declared after three specific criteria are met: when one in five households in a certain area face extreme food shortages; more than 30 percent of the population is acutely malnourished; and at least two people for every 10,000 die each day.
The chief economist for the World Food Program in Rome, Arif Husain, described it earlier this week this way: “When you declare a famine, bad things have already happened. People have already died.”
Famine was last declared in Somalia in July 2011, after an estimated 260,000 people had died, mostly in a two-month period.
Why are people starving?
Mr. Guterres cited two reasons for the current crisis. First, he said, there is not enough money; the United Nations needs $5.6 billion to address the needs, most of it by the end of March. Barely 2 percent of that money is in hand, he said. Whether the United States, by far the biggest humanitarian donor in the world, will follow through on its commitments under President Trump remains unclear.
Second, all four countries facing the threat of famine are reeling from conflict, and in many instances, the leaders of warring parties are blocking aid workers from delivering relief where it is most needed.
“I want to make a personal appeal to the parties to conflict to abide by international humanitarian law and allow aid workers access to reach people in desperate need,” Mr. Guterres said. “Without access, hundreds of thousands of people could die, even if we have the resources to help them.”
Where are people starving and how many?
The situation in Somalia today is different from what it was in 2011. The government is functioning, though there are vast pockets where Shabab militants thrive. But Somalia has already had two consecutive years of drought, and meteorologists expect crops to fail again this year.
In South Sudan, 100,000 people are affected by famine in a part of the country that is most troubled by the fighting between two warring armies, the United Nations announced Monday, with one million more on the brink of famine.
In northern Nigeria, where the military is battling Boko Haram insurgents, there was probably a famine in two towns, called Bama and Banki, according to an early warning system funded by the United States Agency for International Development. But traveling through the area is so dangerous that aid workers have been unable to verify the levels of hunger there, let alone deliver relief. At least five million people face the risk of famine.
The biggest crisis is in Yemen, where a coalition led by Saudi Arabia and backed by the United States is battling ethnic Houthi rebels. More than seven million people need urgent food aid, according to the United Nations. Among them, 462,000 children face “severe acute malnutrition,” which means that even if they survive, they will probably have from developmental disabilities.
Is climate change to blame?
Climate change can make droughts more severe and more frequent. In Somalia, after two years of drought, crops have withered, livestock have died and grain prices have shot up sharply. Nearly three million people there “cannot meet their daily food requirements,” the United Nations says. And more than 900,000 children will most likely be acutely malnourished this year.