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3 Countries, One Region on Brink of Famine, UN Says

FILE - Children collect grain spilled on a field from food aid bags that ruptured upon ground impact following a food drop from a plane at a village in Ayod county, South Sudan, Feb. 6, 2020.

United Nations food agencies are warning that COVID-19, conflict and lack of humanitarian aid are increasing levels of acute hunger around the world, with several countries and one region on the brink of famine.

The World Food Program reports more than 100 million people globally already are suffering from severe food shortages. It warns that number is expected to increase by another 121 million without urgent action to combat this rising tide of global acute hunger.

A new assessment by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization and World Food Program has identified 20 countries as acute food insecurity hotspots. The report warns four of these hotspots—Burkina Faso, South Sudan, Yemen and northeastern Nigeria—could soon slip into famine if conditions continue to deteriorate over the coming months.

FAO senior food crises analyst Luca Russo says currently there is still no evidence of a famine occurring now in these countries but early attention is needed.

“Essentially, the moment you declare a famine, it is already too late to act in the sense that we saw this in the past with Somalia when the famine was declared already 260,000 people had died because of the famine. So, we want to raise an early warning before a famine occurs and we want also to highlight some of the key factors that need to be monitored,” Russo said.

The report cites intensification of violence, economic crises exacerbated by COVID-19, weather extremes and a lack of humanitarian access as key drivers of hunger. These factors, it notes, have caused the number of desperately hungry people to almost triple since 2019 in Burkina Faso. They also are behind food insecurity and high levels of acute malnutrition in children in Yemen.

Russo told VOA that insecurity and hunger are rising in Borno state in northeastern Nigeria where Boko Haram militants remain a dangerous force.

“These are areas where basically today there is no possibility of having humanitarian access. So, that means that the people are left on their own in a situation in which many of them are displaced and this is what can trigger the famine. In South Sudan, we are talking about Jonglei state and there, there is a bit better access but there are floods, conflict and so on. People are displaced,” Russo said.

The U.N. food agencies say the world is at a catastrophic turning point. Unless urgent action is taken now, they warn the world could experience its first outbreak of famine since it was last declared in 2017 in parts of South Sudan. That famine affected 5.5 million people and put more than 200,000 children suffering acute malnutrition at risk of death.