Fighting Famine: Why the world only has weeks to save the lives of millions

In a week of special coverage, ITV News is taking a closer look at how widespread starvation is threatening countries in the parts of the Middle East and Africa.

Beginning our series, Fighting Famine, International Affairs Editor Rageh Omaar explains why the world must act now if it wants any chance of averting a catastrophe.

How long does the world have? Three weeks? Five? Two months, maybe?

How quickly must the international community move to save the lives of nearly 20 million people who will, without a global response, face death by hunger, malnutrition and the legions of diseases that accompany such a condition?

If we do have two months, and by all considerations it seems a generous length of time given the severity of the situation, that means a worldwide response which requires mobilising funds, medicines, logisticians, doctors, nutritionists and engineers to save 660,000 people a day for 30 days.

Think about that for a moment.

It is only when you put it into this kind of context that you begin to realise why Stephen O’Brien, the United Nations head of humanitarian affairs, told the Security Council on March 10 - as I flew back from one of the worst affected areas in Somaliland - that the world was facing “the largest humanitarian crisis since the creation of the United Nations".

"We need $4.4 billion (£3.6 billion) by July," he added bluntly.

A malnourished child in hospital in Somaliland Credit: ITV News

The world has faced devastating famines before.

One doesn’t need to go that far back in time across the very same affected regions to be reminded of the terrible cost that hunger and disease have taken as a result of both natural and man-made famines.

In 2011, Somalia, just one of the four currently affected nations, lost more than 260,000 lives as a result of famine - 133,000 of them children under five years of age.

But even by this terrible recent standard, the threat of famine now is on a far, far larger scale.

20 million people in four countries face the risk of famine Credit: ITV News

The word “unprecedented” is overused, but it is the right word to describe the picture Mr O’Brien was painting for the UN Security Council.

At no other time in living memory has the world had to face four potential famines simultaneously.

The most urgent of these is in Yemen, one of the Arab world’s poorest nations, where the civil war and the bombing campaign by Saudi Arabia has created a perfect storm for famine conditions.

But of a total population of 27.4 million people, a staggering 18.8 million are in need of humanitarian aid and seven million people are hungry.

Mr O’Brien accused all parties in the conflict of hampering access to life-saving humanitarian assistance.

Rains have failed in Somalia and Somaliland for three straight years Credit: ITV News
Many people in Somaliland have left their homes in search of food Credit: ITV News

In South Sudan, the world’s newest nation, which, despite being in the midst of a civil war, the UN’s humanitarian chief said war was not the driving force that had created famine conditions in the nation.

“The famine in South Sudan is man-made,” he said, “parties to the conflict are parties to the famine - as are those not intervening to make the violence stop."

Civil war is helping drive South Sudan to the brink of famine Credit: ITV News

In Somalia and the self-declared Republic of Somaliland, in the north of the country, three years of failed rains have put over six million at risk from starvation again.

In northern Nigeria, it’s thought that if the world doesn’t react quickly enough we could witness 300 children die a day.

The looming famine threat has been described as 'unprecedented' Credit: ITV News

This was a warning of multiple famines foretold.

This situation did not crop up quickly or out of the blue, and it is right to ask with urgency how the world finds itself in a position where it is in an almost impossible race against time to save the lives of millions.

But that is exactly what this is - a desperate race against time.

Let no one say they weren’t warned.

A doctor feeds a malnourished child in Nigeria Credit: AP