Famine kills children first.

Famine does not simply mean “lack of food.” Rather it is a threshold against which indicators like childhood mortality are measured to determine whether the lack of food is causing people to starve to death in large numbers. While food insecurity is prevalent around the world, actual famine is quite rare.

And now, the United Nations says that parts of South Sudan have crossed that threshold. “Some 100,000 people are facing starvation,” says World Food Program spokesperson Steve Taravella. And to make matters worse, the UN says parts of Yemen, Somalia and Northern Nigeria are on the brink of famine.

Never before have their been so many acute food crises happening all at the same time and agencies are scrambling to mount their responses.

Yesterday, in a rare joint press conference, Secretary General Antonio Guterres and the heads of the World Food Program, the UN Development Program, and the UN Humanitarian Relief Coordinator, said the UN needed $4.4 billion by the end of March to avert catastrophe. “Despite some generous pledges, just $90 million has actually been received so far – around two cents for every dollar needed. We are at the beginning of the year, but these numbers are very worrying.” Guterres said. “The lives of millions of people depend on our collective ability to act.”

In all, the UN says some 20 million people are at the “tipping point” of famine and 1.4 million children are at immediate risk of starvation.

The last time the United Nations made a famine declaration, between October 2010 and April 2012 in parts of Somalia, an estimated 260,000 people died, over half of whom were children.

The bottom line: famines are extremely deadly — as deadly or even more so than war or genocide.

On the line to discuss the famine in South Sudan and near-famine in Yemen, Nigeria and Somalia is Steve Taravella of the World Food Program.  If you have 20 minutes and want a deeper understanding of what famine means and what the international community is doing to stop it, have a listen.

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