UN chief warns of risk of famine for millions around the world

Labourers carry maize bags at a United Nations World Food Program (WFP) warehouse in Yambio, South Sudan, March 5, 2020. Gale Julius/Xinhua/
FILE PHOTO: Labourers carry maize bags at a United Nations World Food Program (WFP) warehouse in Yambio, South Sudan. (Xinhua/Gale Julius)

Millions of people around the world risk dying of hunger and the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change are increasing the threat, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said Thursday.

“Without immediate action, millions of people will reach the brink of extreme hunger and death,” Guterres told the Security Council during a meeting on the links between food and security.

Guterres said over 30 million people in more than three dozen countries are “just one step away” from a declaration of famine.

“Climate shocks and the COVID-19 pandemic are adding fuel to the flames. I have one simple message: if you don’t feed people, you feed conflict,” he said.

At the end of 2020, more than 88 million people were suffering from acute hunger due to conflict and instability — a 20 percent increase in one year, he said, pointing to a worsening trend in 2021.

High-risk zones include the Sahel, the Horn of Africa, South Sudan, Yemen and Afghanistan.

The US ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, told how she saw a two-year-old girl die of hunger in Uganda in 1993.

“There’s no reason we can’t get resources to people in acute need,” the ambassador said.

“In today’s world, famine is human-made. And if it is caused by us, that means it must be stopped by us too,” Thomas-Greenfield added.

Oxfam International executive director Gabriela Bucher said people in these worst areas “are not starving — they are being starved.”

She added: “It makes little difference to the hungry whether they are being starved by deliberate action or the callous negligence of conflict parties or the international community.”

Guterres said that in order to save 34 million people in the high-risk zones, the United Nations and its agencies have appealed for emergency mobilization of $5.5 billion.

Guterres announced he was launching a task force “to avert catastrophe,” with representation from the World Food Program and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.

Countries’ responsibilities do not end with simply donating money for food aid, said Bucher of Oxfam.

She denounced “an international community whose most powerful states too often drive starvation with a plentiful supply of weapons.”

She cited as examples the Tigray region of Ethiopia, and Yemen.

She said the council “should deepen its work on this topic,” guarantee humanitarian access to dangerously hungry people and “also take any opportunity to create meaningful accountability for starvation crimes.”