When Food Shortage Becomes Famine

Families hiding out in South Sudan's swamps often survive by eating water lilies and fishing. (Photo: Benedict Moran)

Families hiding out in South Sudan's swamps often survive by eating water lilies and fishing. (Photo: Benedict Moran)

February 25, 2016

GHOUYMAN, South Sudan — The canoe was not big enough to carry them all. Peter Met Biel Luak, his wife, her mother and his 10 children needed to travel through the swamp to escape. Some had to swim or walk through chest-deep water. They had no food, no blankets, no mosquito nets.

“I left nothing behind,” said Peter Luak. “My house was burned down and my cows and belongings were all looted.”

Luak and his family were forced to flee their home in August 2015, when fighting between government and rebel forces decimated their town of Leer.

After three days of wading through a web of narrow canals that traverse the Sudd, one of the largest swamps in the world, they found Ghouyman, a small island where a few other families had taken shelter.

Upon arrival, Luak began weaving a fishing net with string donated from another family on the island. On a good day, he catches three or four fish — still not enough to feed the whole family. Some days, he doesn’t catch anything. If there is a little food left over from the day before, they give it to the children, and the adults don’t eat.

Luak and his family are among the more than 2.8 million people in South Sudan — nearly a quarter of the country’s population — who are currently facing food shortages and need urgent assistance according to the United Nations. The U.N. is now warning of a looming famine.

Peter Luak weaves a fishing net to help feed his family. (Photo: Marcelle Hopkins)
Peter Luak weaves a fishing net to help feed his family. (Photo: Marcelle Hopkins)

When to Use the F-Word

Famine is a technical term. It is a data-based scientific classification of the level of food insecurity in a particular area. The threshold for famine is intentionally set high, and these days, cases of famine are rare. A famine declaration is supposed to trigger a swift and comprehensive intervention by aid organizations to deliver food and medicine to people who are close to death by starvation.

But it hasn’t always worked that way. Before a standardized system to analyze food crises was widely adopted, aid groups, governments and donors struggled to decide if, when and how to respond to emergencies.

The issue came to a head in 2004, when a hunger crisis was unfolding in Somalia. At the time, various international agencies working in Somalia used different indicators to evaluate the food security situation and sometimes published conflicting information, said Cindy Holleman, who worked for the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization’s Food Security and Analysis Unit in Somalia.

“Decision-makers were having trouble understanding which is the right information,” Holleman said, because there was no standardized, centralized system to measure the scale and severity of food shortages.

The lack of a common language with which to describe food shortages also interfered with the ability to coordinate an effective response, according to Chris Hillbruner of the Famine Early Warning Systems Network, a project of the U.S. Agency for International Development.

“There would be a situation, and I’m calling it a crisis, and you’re calling it a disaster, and Joe’s calling it an emergency, and someone else is calling it a famine. And it was very unclear whether we were actually saying different things or not,” Hillbruner said.

In 2004, the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, along with other humanitarian agencies, created the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC), a set of protocols to analyze and classify the severity of food insecurity. The IPC was updated in 2009, and the 2.0 version is widely used today.

The IPC scale has five phases of food insecurity that range from Minimal (Phase 1) to Crisis (Phase 3) to Famine (Phase 5). Each phase is analyzed with specific indicators for food consumption, malnutrition and mortality. For example, in a Phase 5 Famine, at least 20 percent of households in an area face a complete lack of food, the acute malnutrition rate is greater than 30 percent, and more than two people per 10,000 are dying each day.

Source: Famine Early Warnings Network
Source: Famine Early Warning Systems Network

While there are no countries in the world today where a famine has been declared, South Sudan is one of several countries that are currently categorized as Phase 4 Emergency. The others are Yemen, Ethiopia, Central African Republic and Democratic Republic of Congo.

Researchers have found households in South Sudan that are living in famine conditions. But because of limited access to some areas, aid agencies have not been able to collect enough data to determine whether those areas have reached the famine threshold.

“A New Brutality”

South Sudan’s food crisis is entirely man-made. In December 2013, two years after the country gained independence, a power struggle between President Salva Kiir and his former vice president, Riek Machar, launched the young country into civil war.

What began as fighting between two army factions in the capital quickly spread to other parts of the country. Machar’s rebel forces took control of large parts of Unity state, an area loyal to the former vice president, including Leer, where the Luak family lived.

In April 2015, the government launched an offensive to retake rebel-held areas. Across Unity state, its forces burned down entire villages, destroyed food crops and looted livestock, sparking mass displacement of the survivors, according to the U.N.

“There are indications that this may have been a deliberate strategy by the government or the SPLA [South Sudanese military] aimed at depriving civilians of any source of livelihood with a view to forcing their displacement,” a U.N. human rights report said.

Government officials deny the allegations.

“That’s not true,” Ateny Wek, President Salva Kiir’s spokesman, told FRONTLINE. “For anybody to think that the SPLA is killing people or taking cows, this is an exaggerated statement, a statement aimed at just tarnishing the image of the SPLA.”

A June 2015 report by the U.N. peacekeeping mission in South Sudan documented widespread allegations of civilian killings, rape and abduction. The report noted “a new brutality and intensity, including such horrific acts as the burning alive of people in their homes.”

Like the Luak family, thousands of civilians fled into swamps to escape the violence, “only to be hunted down by armed attackers in their places of hiding,” according to a report by aid groups working in South Sudan.

Despite an August ceasefire signed by Kiir and Machar, ongoing violence has forced more displacement and deepened food insecurity.

“In the six months since the signing of the peace agreement, a scorched-earth strategy has continued in which civilians were burned alive in their homes, their livestock raided and their means of livelihood destroyed,” U.N. Assistant Secretary General for Human Rights, Ivan Simonovic, told the U.N. Security Council in February.

More than 2 million people in South Sudan have been displaced by the civil war. Fighting has prevented the delivery of food aid to people hiding out in the swamps and to those trapped in areas of active violence.

By January, an estimated 40,000 people were near starvation. The U.N. warned that if it didn’t get access to Leer and other parts of Unity state, those areas could slip into famine.

The U.N. estimates that more than 680,000 children in South Sudan suffer from acute malnutrition. (Photo: Benedict Moran)
The U.N. estimates that more than 680,000 children in South Sudan suffer from acute malnutrition. (Photo: Benedict Moran)

A Slow-Motion Disaster

It can be years between when the first warning signs of food insecurity appear and when a famine is officially declared.

In South Sudan, families confronting food shortages have found ways to cope. They eat stored harvests or seeds, sell off cattle and other assets, take their kids out of school, or migrate to find help. But as their resources dwindle and food intake drops, malnutrition weakens their immune systems, and people begin to die from illnesses such as malaria and dysentery. These malnutrition-related deaths often begin in Phase 4, before a food crisis is declared a famine.

Life-saving aid should be delivered long before that happens, says Chris Hillbruner of the Famine Early Warning Systems Network. “The bottom line is that you shouldn’t be waiting until a famine is declared to respond. If you wait until a famine is ongoing and people are already dying, then you’ve waited too long.”

The U.N. started requesting emergency funding to respond to South Sudan’s crisis in 2014. In January of this year, the U.N. issued another appeal to its member states for $1.3 billion to provide aid to 5 million people in South Sudan. It has so far received about 5 percent of the funds requested.

With the international aid system struggling to respond to multiple and simultaneous humanitarian emergencies, protracted conflicts and natural disasters, it can be difficult to invoke a sense of urgency among donors and the general public, says Vanessa Parra of Oxfam, which runs agriculture, water and sanitation programs in South Sudan.

“It’s really hard to get people to pay attention to anything before famine,” Parra said.

The last famine to be declared was in Somalia in July 2011. In the 11 months prior, the Famine Early Warning Systems Network issued several warnings, calling on the international community to intervene to avert widespread starvation. Yet throughout that year, the amount of resources contributed to the humanitarian operation and the number of people receiving aid remained essentially flat. Once famine was declared, international funding for emergency food aid nearly doubled within a month.

But for many Somalis it was too little, too late. Nearly 260,000 people died during that famine, more than half of them children. According to a study by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization and the Famine Early Warning Systems Network, half died before famine was declared.

“The conclusion was, even though the warning was there and the IPC was there, a famine wasn’t averted and there was quite a delay in terms of response,” said Cindy Holleman, who is now the IPC Global Program Manager.

Though early warnings did not prevent a famine in Somalia, Holleman says IPC analysis and the relief efforts have kept South Sudan from reaching famine. “The calls by IPC on the risk of famine have been going out since last year, and it did contribute to a scale-up of response.”

Still, the U.N. said in February that South Sudan is facing “unprecedented” levels of food insecurity, and hunger is expected to peak this spring. In 2014, the think tank International Crisis Group estimated 50,000 people had died in the country, and it expects that number to be much higher when the death toll is finally tallied.

Even if donor countries contribute more resources to combat food insecurity, some experts say more action is needed in South Sudan.

“The international response to the crisis will not be effective without addressing the underlying causes of the food crisis in South Sudan,” Amir Idris, Professor of African and African American Studies at Fordham University, wrote in an email to FRONTLINE. “The ongoing humanitarian crisis in South Sudan has political and security dimensions. Therefore, the international community should continue to exert pressure on the warring parties to implement the signed peace agreement and urge them to provide unfettered access to those in need of urgent humanitarian assistance.”

Marcelle Hopkins, Benedict Moran and Evan Wexler produced “On the Brink of Famine,” an immersive virtual reality documentary that transports viewers inside the hunger crisis in South Sudan. The first two parts of their film are embedded below in Facebook’s 360-degree player; the full documentary will premiere on FRONTLINE’s Facebook page, starting March 1.

The Drop: On the Brink of Famine – 360° Video

The only way to get food into some war-torn regions of South Sudan is by dropping it from the sky.Experience a food drop through the power of Facebook 360° in the first scene of a new immersive documentary by FRONTLINE and The Brown Institute for Media Innovation, with support from the Ford Foundation and MINY Media Center by IFP. Full documentary coming March 1.

Posted by FRONTLINE on Sunday, February 21, 2016

The Camp: On the Brink of Famine – 360° Video

Imagine having to leave your family, your home, everything you hold dear, and walk alone for days just to find food and shelter. Eventually, you end up in a camp with over 120,000 others who, like you, fled the violence of civil war — living on the brink of starvation.It’s one thing to read about it. It’s another to experience it. We invite you to go inside a UN camp in South Sudan via Facebook 360° in this scene from “On the Brink of Famine.” The full VR documentary, by FRONTLINE and The Brown Institute for Media Innovation with support from the Ford Foundation and MINY Media Center by IFP, premieres March 1.

Posted by FRONTLINE on Thursday, February 25, 2016

“On the Brink of Famine” is supported by FRONTLINE and by a “Magic Grant” from The David and Helen Gurley Brown Institute for Media Innovation, a collaboration between Columbia and Stanford Universities. The Ford Foundation also supported the development of the project via its funding for FRONTLINE’s Enterprise Journalism Desk, and via a Ford Foundation JustFilms Fellowship at the Made in NY Media Center by IFP.

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