Starvation being used as a weapon of war has become the new normal, according to Save the Children. Its analysis shows more than half a million infants in conflict zones could die of malnutrition by the end of the year if they do not receive treatment, the equivalent of one every minute.
The charity makes its own estimates using UN data, and projects that 4.5 million under-fives will need treatment for life-threatening hunger this year in the most dangerous conflict zones – an increase of 20% since 2016. At current rates, only one in three will receive treatment, and 590,000 could die as a result.
The data emerged ahead of the launch of the UN annual report on food security, which last year warned that global hunger was rising for the first time since the turn of the century, fuelled by conflict and climate change.
“The broad story is we’ve seen a drastic increase in the number of children at risk of death as a result of hunger related problems” said Kevin Watkins, the CEO of Save the Children. “Using starvation as a weapon of war has become the new normal, with devastating consequences for children. From Yemen to South Sudan the failure to protect children from hunger is putting children at risk.”
There were chronic shortfalls in donor funding in conflict zones. The charity described as “striking” the example of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which it estimated had the highest number of infants with life-threatening malnutrition while facing an 8.6% funding shortfall for nutrition.
More than 2 million children in the Democratic Republic of Congo are estimated to be at risk of dying from severe acute malnutrition if they do not get the aid they need, the United Nations warned.
U.N. humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock is expected to meet donors in countries where conditions in many areas are worsening, U.N. spokesman Jens Laerke told a Geneva briefing.
“We have a great responsibility in the DRC…now is the time to stay the course,” Laerke said.
2 million children at risk of starvation include some 300,000 children in the Kasai region, Bettina Luescher of the U.N.’s World Food Programme (WFP) said.
It is estimated that 1.9 million infants in the DRC would suffer severe acute malnutrition (SAM) – the most dangerous form of under-nutrition – by the end of 2018. With 1.6 million likely to remain untreated, more than 300,000 children could die.
More than half of the infants at risk from untreated SAM were in the DRC, while Sudan, Afghanistan, Yemen and Somalia were the next four most impacted. On average the nutrition programmes were around a third funded, with the exception of Yemen, which was 60% funded.
“In DRC, where funding is critical in keeping people alive, the nutrition appeals are heavily underfunded,” said Watkins. “The picture is different in Yemen, which is relatively well funded in terms of its nutrition programme. But in Yemen, the real damage of the war is the liquidity crisis which is draining the lifeblood of the economy. You see 400,000 children at risk of malnutrition.”
Previous research by Save the Children found an increasing number of “grave violations” of children’s rights, due to the denial of humanitarian access and attacks on aid workers assisting children, in 2017 – 1,460 cases, up from 1,014 cases in 2016.
Symptoms of SAM include jutting ribs and loose skin, with visible wasting of body tissue or swelling in the ankles or feet. Children with it also have substantially reduced immune systems, and are prone to contract and die of diseases like pneumonia, cholera and malaria.
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It is time to rethink how we grow, share and consume our food. If done right, agriculture, forestry and fisheries can provide nutritious food for all and generate decent incomes, while supporting people-centered rural development and protecting the environment.
Right now, our soils, freshwater, oceans, forests and biodiversity are being rapidly degraded. Climate change is putting even more pressure on the resources we depend on, increasing risks associated with disasters, such as droughts and floods. Many rural women and men can no longer make ends meet on their land, forcing them to migrate to cities in search of opportunities. Poor food security is also causing millions of children to be stunted, or too short for the ages, due to severe malnutrition.
A profound change of the global food and agriculture system is needed if we are to nourish the 815 million people who are hungry today and the additional 2 billion people expected to be undernourished by 2050. Investments in agriculture are crucial to increasing the capacity for agricultural productivity and sustainable food production systems are necessary to help alleviate the perils of hunger.
The alarming signs of increasing food insecurity and high levels of different forms of malnutrition are a clear warning that there is considerable work to be done to make sure we ‘leave no one behind’ on the road towards achieving the SDG goals on food security and improved nutrition,” the heads of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the World Food Programme (WFP) and the World Health Organization (WHO) warned in their joint foreword to the report.
“If we are to achieve a world without hunger and malnutrition in all its forms by 2030, it is imperative that we accelerate and scale up actions to strengthen the resilience and adaptive capacity of food systems and people’s livelihoods in response to climate variability and extremes,” the leaders said.
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Call for action
The report calls for implementing and scaling up interventions aimed at guaranteeing access to nutritious foods and breaking the inter-generational cycle of malnutrition. Policies must pay special attention to groups who are the most vulnerable to the harmful consequences of poor food access: infants, children aged under five, school-aged children, adolescent girls, and women.
At the same time, a sustainable shift must be made towards nutrition-sensitive agriculture and food systems that can provide safe and high-quality food for all.
The report also calls for greater efforts to build climate resilience through policies that promote climate change adaptation and mitigation, and disaster risk reduction.
We cannot but hope that Africa as a continent heed to this call and help save her future-because children are the future.