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Why Are Children in Gaza and Sudan at Risk of Famine?

Right now, hundreds of thousands of children in Gaza and Sudan are at risk of famine. The warning signs have been and gone. Hundreds of thousands of children who have managed to dodge bullets and bombs are now facing death by starvation and disease. 

Across the world, in parts of Somalia, Afghanistan, Yemen, South Sudan and Ethiopia children are at risk of famine as well. 

For those still fighting to survive, time is quickly running out to prevent long-lasting impacts. Malnutrition can cause stunting, impede mental and physical development, and weaken immune systems. At the same time, children and families are often forced to take desperate measures to survive when they can’t access food. Children are being recruited into armed groups with the promise of food and protection, exposing them to devastating violence and harm.

Here, 10 more things you need to know about famine and why the ‘F-word’ of the humanitarian sector is only used when a food crisis has reached a calamitous stage.

In South Sudan, a mother holds her baby in her arms who is being treated for severe acute malnutrition.

Nyadhial's baby daughter, Machar, fell dangerously ill with severe acute malnutrition. "Machar started her sickness with diarrhea and vomiting to the point that it became serious," explained the mother. "When I saw her condition wasn’t improving, I decided to take her to Save the Children’s center.” So that Machar doesn’t fall ill again, and the family can get enough to eat, we’re providing them with cash transfers to buy what they need.

1. What is famine?

Famine is the most severe phase of the United Nations’ system to monitor food insecurity. The system was set up in 2004 and has become the global standard for the classification of acute food insecurity.

The Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) system uses a set of standardized tools to provide a "common currency" for classifying the severity of food insecurity, focusing on intensity rather than magnitude. It starts at IPC Phase 1 with famine being IPC Phase 5. 

Famine, the ‘F-word’ of the humanitarian sector, is only used when a food crisis, usually caused by multiple factors, has reached a calamitous stage. It is rare, but when it does occur, it means there is an extreme shortage of food and children and adults within a certain area are already dying of malnutrition daily. 

In Somalia, a baby's arm is measured with a MUAC band that is used to diagnose malnutrition.

In Baidoa, Somalia, nine-month-old Fawzia* is measured with a MUAC band that is used to measure the upper arm circumference of children to help identify malnutrition. Baidoa is home to more than 20% of all young children facing severe malnutrition and almost half (45%) of people facing catastrophic, famine-like conditions across the country.

2. What conditions need to be met to be declared a famine?

A famine classification is attributed when an area has at least 20% of households facing an extreme lack of food, at least 30% of children suffering from acute malnutrition, and two people for every 10,000 dying each day due to outright starvation or to the interaction of malnutrition and disease. 

3. What is the purpose of the IPC system? 

The main goal of the IPC system is to generate the information decision makers need to trigger action to prevent hunger crises from deteriorating further and save lives.

It provides decision-makers with an evidence and consensus-based analysis of food insecurity and acute malnutrition situations, to inform emergency responses as well as medium- and long-term policy and programming. 

 
In South Sudan, a mother holds her baby daughter who was treated at a Save the Children health center for severe acute malnutrition.

The remote community in the Akobo West region of South Sudan where Nyandeng and her two-year old daughter Aluel* live has been gripped by climate change, conflict and hunger. Aluel was suffering from cardiovascular disease and severe acute malnutrition when she was admitted to a Save the Children-supported health center. "She is only breastfeeding and the breast milk is not enough", said her mother. "She was given milk here and also got injections for a month. She is still being given plumpy nut."

4. Who decides when to declare a famine? 

The determination is generally made jointly by several parties, primarily the government of the affected country and various United Nations agencies. The declaration is normally informed by a famine classification through the IPC system and an analysis by the "Famine Early Warning Systems Network" (FEWSNET).

FEWSNET was set up by the U.S. government in 1985 to collect and analyze data from various sources after devastating famines in East and West Africa, including the deaths of about one million people in Ethiopia in 1984.

The decision to declare famine is highly political and there are many cases of the threshold to call famine being there, but parties not making a declaration

The declaration of a famine carries no binding obligations on the UN or member states but serves to focus global attention on the problem. 

In Somalia, a baby is weighed and screened for malnutrition.

In Somalia, Casho* travelled on foot for two days and two nights with her seven children from their rural farm to Baidoa in search of food, water and medical treatment. Casho’s family used to grow crops and rear livestock, but they recently lost their livestock due to drought. Casho's baby, Fawzia*, is receiving treatment for malnutrition at Save the Children’s health clinic on the outskirts of Baidoa.

5. When was the last famine declared?

Famine was declared in parts of South Sudan on February 2017 where nearly 80,000 people faced famine conditions (IPC Phase 5) in parts of Unity State in the central north. Another one million people were classified as in emergency conditions or IPC4. This followed three years of civil war that had devastated livelihoods, coupled with an ailing economy and high food prices. A famine was declared in parts of southern Somalia in 2011 when 490,000 people were experiencing catastrophic levels of acute food insecurity or IPC5 due to conflict, drought, and high food prices.

About 260,000 people died, over half of whom were children aged under five.

When another drought crippled Somalia in 2017, rapid action helped avert a famine.

 

6. What is the latest analysis on Gaza and Sudan? How many people are facing IPC Phases 3, 4, or 5?

In both Gaza and Sudan, months of violent conflict, coupled with severely restricted access and denials of aid have triggered record levels of life-threatening hunger. 

In June 2024, new data from the IPC revealed that in Gaza, 9 months of Israeli bombardment and near-total siege have left almost the entire population (96%) facing severe food shortages (IPC 3+), with more than 495,000 people facing the most severe levels (IPC 5). 

While in Sudan, 14 months of conflict have turned Sudan’s breadbasket into battlefields, leaving 3 in 4 children – or 16.4 million –facing severe food shortages (IPC 3+) – a number which has almost doubled in just 6 months. This includes 355,000 children who are now facing catastrophic levels of hunger (IPC 5). 

In both contexts, the IPC have reported that a lack of data to verify child malnutrition and death rates meant it was not possible to determine if thresholds for a famine classification were met.

 
A dead cow lies outside a village in Kenya.

A dead cow lies outside a village in Garissa County, Kenya. Local residents said the cow died due to lack of food.

8. What action can be taken to avert a famine? 

There are four key areas that are critical to averting famine:
1) early warning and action
2) an international coordinated response
3) full and unimpeded humanitarian access and
4) cessation of conflicts

These factors are needed to ensure food, agricultural inputs, livestock supports, water, sanitation, and hygiene, health and nutrition reach the most vulnerable communities.

Full and unimpeded humanitarian access is particularly essential to establish operations, as well as move goods and personnel where they are needed. This is particularly the case in conflict zones where safe access is critical.

While itis vital to respond in the short term to save lives, the long-term focus must be on the underlying drivers of hunger, malnutrition, and food insecurity, including conflict and climate change.

This includes building the resilience of families’ livelihoods, markets, and food systems while governments must implement long-term, costed nutrition plans.

In South Sudan, a mother holds her baby daughter who was treated at a Save the Children health center for severe acute malnutrition.

The remote community in the Akobo West region of South Sudan where Nyandeng and her two-year old daughter Aluel* live has been gripped by climate change, conflict and hunger. Aluel was suffering from cardiovascular disease and severe acute malnutrition when she was admitted to a Save the Children-supported health center. "She is only breastfeeding and the breast milk is not enough", said her mother. "She was given milk here and also got injections for a month. She is still being given plumpy nut."

9. Why are children affected more by a famine than adults? 

Children facing malnutrition due to starvation are much more susceptible to disease and illnesses such as dysentery, diarrhea, cholera, malaria, and pneumonia.

Without enough nutritious food to eat or the ability to absorb the right nutrients due to illness, children under five are at high risk of acute malnutrition which can lead to death - or if a child survives, can cause stunting, and impede mental and physical development longer term.

Famine conditions also make families much more likely to take drastic measures to survive, including marrying younger children off for food or money, or taking children permanently out of school to work.

10. Why is use of the term famine so controversial? 

Famine has both human and political connotations.

For people, it destroys livelihoods resulting in life-threatening shortages of food, increased severe malnutrition, disease outbreaks, and excess deaths.

For humanitarian organizations, famine is the outcome of prevention and response failure.

For governments, it can be politically contentious as it can point to a failure of governance and inability to provide basic protection for people.

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What is Save the Children Doing and How Can You Help? 

Save the Children  is working around the clock to support families with food, cash, and supplies so children have access to nutritious food. We are working with partners to help communities spot early warning signs and take the necessary measures to prevent hunger.  We are supporting children to get the food they need to survive.

We have been supporting Palestinian and Sudanese children since 1953 and 1983 respectively, providing emergency support as well as safety nets to help protect families from the worst impacts of hunger. Right now, in both Gaza and Sudan, where possible we’re screening and providing treatment for malnutrition, giving families food packages and cash to buy food, and delivering other lifesaving support. However, the basic conditions to reach families at the scale and quality needed are simply not in place. 

The lives of children are hanging in the balance. Our hunger and nutrition programs help millions every year. But we can’t do it alone. Your donation to the Children's Emergency Fund can help support life-saving programs in Gaza, Sudan, Somalia, the Horn of Africa and around the world. 

 

* Name changed for protection.