• Anab feeds her one year-old baby Mary leaves to survive. (Plan International)Source: Plan International
South Sudan is currently facing a frightening humanitarian crisis in the same vein as the Ethiopian famine of the early 1980s. But unlike the famous 1984 famine, this time we can head off a major catastrophe for East Africa.
By
Evan Davies at Plan International Australia

15 Mar 2017 - 2:01 PM  UPDATED 11 Apr 2017 - 9:53 AM

The Famine in Ethiopia in the early 1980s was one of the worst humanitarian crises of the 20th century. One million people died from starvation. Yet as the crisis unfolded from 1982 to 1984, it remained virtually unknown to the world.  

When a BBC journalist gained access to Ethiopia and images of emaciated children made the evening news, they shocked the world. In response, the public rallied, Bob Geldof’s Band Aid was born, and the public opened their hearts and their wallets to raise an extraordinary $50 million pounds ($80.87 million AU) for aid. Major international relief operations began arriving in early 1985, by which time more than eight million people were in famine.

Right now, East Africa is facing a famine on a similar, yet even more frightening scale.

Last month, the United Nations declared Unity State in South Sudan as in famine, a decision it does not make lightly.  This is the first declaration of famine anywhere in the world in the last six years. Famine is declared when more than one in five families struggle to find enough food every day and one in three people are suffering acute malnutrition. Two or more people from every 10,000 die each day.

We have already received reports of families subsisting on weeds and waterlilies. Around 100,000 people – including children – are starving in South Sudan right now. 

Three years of drought across eastern and southern Africa and conflict and political instability in South Sudan, Nigeria, Somalia, Burundi and Yemen, has left millions of people facing critical food insecurity and on the verge of starvation. 

We have already received reports of families subsisting on weeds and waterlilies. Around 100,000 people – including children – are starving in South Sudan right now. 

Unlike the famous 1984 famine, this time we can head off a major catastrophe for East Africa.

We now have a Famine Early Warning Systems Network to alert the international humanitarian community to areas of critical food insecurity. This system predicts three more famines in 2017: in Somalia, Nigeria and Yemen.  Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, Mozambique and parts of Kenya and Tanzania are listed as emergency situations. As many as 25 million people who live in these areas are likely to suffer some hardship as the perfect storm of multiple crop failures; climate change, severe drought and conflict push them from the land and into total destitution. That is more than the entire population of Australia.

But unless the media and the public pay attention, we are powerless.

Early warning systems are only effective at saving lives and can only prevent the scale of the 1984 disaster, if we, as the international community, pay attention to them. Because of these early warning systems, we can respond and scale up our food distribution operations to try to avert these catastrophes.

The UN Secretary General says $4.4 billion USD ($5.85 billion) is needed by the end of this month to avert a catastrophe across the region. The UK government has committed £100 million ($161.69) and EU government have given €82 million. Last week, the Australian government announced $20 million more for this crisis, bringing out contribution to $34 million.

But we can’t do it without public support. And that means donations. It means we – as good citizens of the world – need to act with empathy and rally once more like we did in 1984.

Plan International has a long history and established, trusted relationships with communities across the East Africa region - particularly in South Sudan, where we have worked since 2000.  Acting on early warnings, Plan, along with other major development agencies are – as I write - scaling up our food distribution operations in East Africa. Our immediate goal is to prevent the most vulnerable regions from degenerating into famine. 

It means we – as good citizens of the world – need to act with empathy and rally once more like we did in 1984.

Thirty years ago, Band Aid helped raise the alarm to the devastation that was unfolding in Ethiopia. It created a huge ground swell of public support for greater global action. If we had the early warning systems in place then that we do now, thousands of lives could’ve been spared.

The public must not ignore the declaration of famine South Sudan. It is a coalmine canary which sends a clear message that there is danger ahead. The time to act is now.

Evan Davies is a humanitarian advisor at Plan International Australia. 

Donations can be made to Plan’s East Africa famine appeal by clicking here.

How your charity helped to free me from poverty
Melbourne local, Deruka Dekuek fled to Kenya from the South Sudan when she was only a teen. She lived in a refugee camp and was sponsored to attend school at age 16. She now says thank you to the charitable many who gave so that she could break the cycle of poverty and later, immigrate to Australia.
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