A Preventable Tragedy:Millions Around the World Are Still Threatened with Starvation

A malnourished baby inside a hospital in Burao, Somaliland. Around 20 million people around the world are at acute risk of death by starvation. A total of 800 million people are suffering from different forms of hunger.
Somaliland, Burao, 2017A malnourished baby inside the Burao hospital.

A Preventable Tragedy
Millions Around The World Are Still Threatened with Starvation
Every ninth person on the planet suffers from hunger. The situation is so dire in some countries that 20 million people are at acute risk of death by starvation. How is this possible at a time of a global food surplus?
The rainy season used to be the best time of the year, says Asha Ham. Love would arrive in the village along with the precipitation: With enough for everyone to eat, well-fed goats to slaughter and a sufficient number of camels to pay the dowry, it was the wedding season. It was a time of abundance and the people of Somaliland enjoy showing photos of those happy times: smiling men and women in an undulating sea of grass. Asha Ham, a proud nomad and mother of seven, is one of those who is fond of recalling such past periods of plenty — despite the pain it causes these days. This is a darker time, in which everyone is fighting for survival.
Asha Ham is wearing a green robe and carrying an empty water canister as she stands in the dust of Fiqi Ayuub, a settlement in Somaliland, the autonomous region in northern Somalia. She has come here from the desert, having heard that there is still water in this tiny village. A few hundred meters away, dead animals are lying in the dust: decomposing camels and lifeless goats, their bellies burst open revealing the plastic bags inside — their final meal before death. More than 10 million animals have died of thirst in recent months.
The people of Somaliland have named this drought “Sima,” which means “equalizer,” because it spares no one. “Once the animals die, the people are next,” says Asha Ham, the nomad.
Many were able to survive the first drought with reserves they had stockpiled, she says, while the second made it impossible to rebuild those stockpiles. Now, the third drought has ruined the 75 percent of the Somaliland population that lives from their animals. Asha Ham used to have 50 goats, but only five of them are still alive. “We are roaming everywhere on the search for something to eat,” she says, “but we can hardly find anything at all.”
Nomads from all parts of the country have come to Fiqi Ayuub because an aid organization delivers water to the settlement. The village population has quadrupled and the herdsmen have set up their sun-bleached tents on the outskirts.
“Come along,” Asha Ham says and leads the way out of her tent, pointing to an empty pot on the ground, a dish with a bit of milk powder and, outside, an enclosure made of thorny branches for her five plucky goats. “We don’t have meat or milk,” she says. “We eat rice once a day. My children have lost all their strength.” Even the thought of rain brings little hope anymore. “The animals are too weak — the change in weather would kill them.” Asha Ham doesn’t know how they will survive.
By 2030, the fate that she and many others in Somaliland are currently suffering is to have been eradicated. Officially. In 2015, the United Nations General Assembly set itself the goal of “zero hunger,” part of the package of Sustainable Development Goals passed that year. And there was reason to be optimistic: Since 1990, the number of people suffering from hunger had dropped by more than 200 million. An enormous success story.
Unfortunately, it is also an extremely fragile development. Indeed, the zero-hunger goal has recently been slipping further into the future rather than getting ever closer. Somalia is one of the four countries in which famine is spreading the quickest: The situation is similarly dire in South Sudan, Yemen and northeastern Nigeria. Twenty million people are at acute risk of death by starvation in these four countries and UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Stephen O’Brien says that “we are facing the largest humanitarian crisis since the creation of the UN.”
At the G-20 summit in Hamburg in July, leaders of the world’s largest economies are set to discuss how best to help the poorest of the poor. The German government would like to convince other G-20 states to establish a Marshall Plan for Africa and Chancellor Angela Merkel received the leaders of 10 African nations last week in Berlin to discuss the initiative. “We have to learn to think differently,” Merkel said, because if people don’t see a future in Africa, “the young people will say: We’ll have to look for a new life elsewhere in the world.” But combatting famine is not one of the stated goals of the G-20 plan. Its main focus is that of stopping migration and is focused primarily on countries that are comparatively functional.
Yet the 20 million people who are facing imminent death by starvation are just the tip of the iceberg. Acute hunger crises tend to grab global attention because of the dramatic images they produce, but the larger issue at stake is revealed by the following number: 800 million. That’s how many people in the world are facing hunger today.
One out of every nine. In 2017.
How is it possible that humanity is unable to get this most existential and shameful problem of all under control? Who is responsible? And most importantly: What must be done to end hunger? A team of SPIEGEL journalists set out to find answers to those and other questions. Reporters traveled to places like northern Somalia and South Sudan, which are facing acute crises, but also to Haiti and India, where Hunger is quiet and chronic.
Somaliland: The Climate Disaster
In the hospital of Burao, a city in Somaliland, Doctor Yusuf Dirir Ali is standing in front of a small boy. Just 15 months old, the boy’s name is Hamsa and he is alarmingly emaciated. Villagers had stopped an aid organization convoy and begged them to take the child to the next city.
Now, Hamsa is lying listlessly in his mother’s arms. Doctor Ali palpates his belly and gently strokes the wounds on his body. When the boy began to weaken, his family extinguished hot coals on his skin, hoping to dispel the evil curse. The family refused to accept that it was hunger that had gripped Hamsa.
Yet Somalia is no stranger to famine. It was only six years ago that the last record drought gripped the country, with 260,000 perishing from hunger. Today, the UN estimates that almost 7 million people — more than half of the population — need help. Fully 1.3 billion euros are required to supply that aid, but thus far only one-third of the sum has been collected.

The region of Somaliland in the country’s north declared independence from Somalia in 1991, but it has not been globally recognized as an autonomous republic. In contrast to the rest of Somalia, where al-Shabaab militants are fighting to establish an Islamist regime, Somaliland has a democratically elected government, a military and police that ensure order, its own currency and flag and it even hosts a book fair. State institutions are largely functional, which counts for a lot in a region beset by one of the worst crises in the world. But it is still not enough.
“We have six ambulances for a million people in our area of responsibility and no money to buy fuel or pay drivers,” says Ali, the doctor in Burao.
The children who make it to the hospital usually stay for two weeks, lying beneath bucolic images of mice and flowers painted on the walls. Most of them have to be fed by tubes and don’t even have enough strength to scream or cry. “The worst part is the quiet,” Ali says. He can’t do any more than revitalize them before releasing them back into the same desperate situation.
The bodies of famine victims begin to consume themselves after a time. In the first days without food, metabolism slows, a kind of natural power-saving mode, and the organism obtains glucose for the brain by breaking down glycogen reserves in muscles and the liver. Then, fat reserves are targeted, before the body begins to break down protein from muscles and organs. Starvation victims feel confused and fearful and brain activity slows. Many suffer from diarrhea and infections or slip into a coma; some suffer heart attacks. Children, in particular, develop edema, causing their bellies to swell. After 20 to 60 days, death is the result.
Emergency assistance is absolutely necessary to save those suffering from starvation, but to avoid future famines, regions like Somaliland also need a long-term strategy, particularly given that climate change is jeopardizing the advancements that have been made thus far in the battle against hunger. It has led to the more frequent occurrence of drought, while both humans and animals need more water as the temperatures rise. Heat waves are destroying entire crops more often than they used to while oceans are also heating up and becoming more acidic.
One of the terrible ironies of history is the fact that climate change, largely caused by the industrialized world, hits the world’s poorest nations the hardest.
Somaliland has long been seen as an African success story. But the government there does not have the means to handle a famine of the magnitude of this one. Furthermore, the fact that Somaliland hasn’t been recognized internationally has meant that it receives little aid.
The suffering has spread as a result. Somaliland’s economy is almost entirely based on traditional animal husbandry, and when times are good, the region exports up to 4 million goats, sheep, camels and head of cattle per year to Arab countries and 75 percent of the government’s budget comes from taxes on these exports. Now, though, the drought is threatening an entire people’s existence. Is there a way out?
“We have to change our country’s way of life,” says Shukri Bandare, Somaliland’s environment minister and member of the National Drought Committee. A shrewd and resolute woman who finds herself facing an almost superhuman task, Bandare receives visitors in her sparsely furnished office in the capital of Hargeisa. She believes that her people will have to abandon some traditions in order to find a new path forward, because in the long term, the country will be too dry to support livestock.
“We must free ourselves from animal husbandry,” Bandare says. She tries to sound optimistic, even as she constantly uses the word “must.” “We must expand our fisheries industry and change our diet.” Somaliland, she points out, has petroleum reserves and the port of Berbera. “We must diversify our income,” Bandare insists. But all of that will take decades.
The minister gushes about the cave paintings in the region and the beaches, dreaming of a future of tourism. But Somaliland won’t be able to reinvent itself on its own. As if to underline that challenge, more starving children are delivered to the hospital near her ministry even as she speaks.
The Paris climate deal envisions poorer countries receiving support from the prosperous to help them adjust to global warming. Which means that U.S. President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement is also a blow to the fight against world hunger.
South Sudan: Hunger as a Weapon
That which is threatening Somalia, Yemen and northeastern Nigeria has already become reality in South Sudan. In February, the United Nations declared a famine — the highest of five hunger warning levels — in parts of the country, in which a civil war broke out in 2013. Fully 5.5 million people, almost half of the country’s population, are suffering from hunger.
A small UN cargo plane touches down on the runway in Nyal, a settlement in the south of the state of Unity. At first glance, there is little to indicate that the region is beset by famine. The land seems fertile, the cattle look healthy and the earth, saturated by the water of the Nile River, shimmers damply.
Hunger in South Sudan is not a product of the climate, but of war — and this despite the fact that the country is rich in natural resources and has been a favorite of the international donor community since its founding in 2011. Nobody should face starvation here. One might think.
One of Nyal’s hospitals has 16 beds, but only five of them are occupied. “We aren’t able to reach the people who fled from the war into the swamps,” says a caregiver. Nyakuakna Gatjuor, 20, is lying on one of the beds. Together with her small son and baby, she managed to make it to Nyal on foot.
“Men in uniform forced their way into our village and killed many people,” she relates haltingly. “I wrapped my baby in bits of plastic and then we spent days wading through the swamp.” They ate what they could find, including fruits and water lilies.

Around 100,000 people have fled to Nyal, but many aid workers have left the town out of fear for their safety. Due to the fighting, Nyal is only accessible by air, with burned-out military planes lying about and many houses destroyed. The last attempt by government troops to reconquer Nyal was repulsed by rebels two years ago, but the war could flare up again here at any time.
Corrupt, militaristic elites have discovered hunger as a weapon of war, with two men bearing most of the responsibility: Salva Kiir and Riek Machar. The two represent the country’s largest ethnic groups, with President Kiir belonging to the Dinkas and his former deputy Machar hailing from the Nuers. Following independence in 2011, they launched a struggle for power that has been defined by ethnic rivalries.
Machar was fired by Kiir in mid-2013, and the civil war broke out a short time later. Today, government troops fight against rebel groups while local militias have likewise joined in the slaughter. The fighting has made it extremely difficult for aid workers to reach the population.
But the aid organizations aren’t just helping those suffering from hunger, they are also extending the war, says Jok Madut Jok, director of the Sudd Institute, an independent think tank in the capital of Juba. Jok used to be a development aid worker himself and has written several books about Sudan. “If you provide food to the population, you’re also feeding the armed forces,” he says. Much of the food supplies, he says, are either diverted to the army or distributed to families whose relatives are fighting in the conflict.
Making matters worse, the government of South Sudan announced in March that it was jacking up the fee for aid worker permits to $10,000 — 100 times higher than the previous fee. They reversed course after vehement international protest, but government troops are still enriching themselves at hundreds of roadblocks, which aid workers are only allowed to pass for a price.
“Emergency aid saves lives, but at the same time it impedes the finding of political solutions for the causes of suffering,” Jok Madut Jok says, giving voice to the eternal aid dilemma. He argues that aid for South Sudan should be completely suspended. “Then our elites would be forced to come up with their own solutions.”
Many aid workers are infuriated by such suggestions, particularly given that they often put their own lives at risk to help. Indeed, more than 100 aid workers have lost their lives in the last three-and-a-half years in South Sudan. “We’re not going to let people suffer just so we have an argument for negotiations with local authorities,” says the employee of one aid organization in Nyal. He lifts a boy out of a plastic container hanging from a scale. The boy is much too light for his age and his stomach is bloated. “We have to act, we have no choice,” says the aid worker. “That is the humanitarian imperative.”


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