Science, Tech & Environment

What Makes This A Famine

This story is a part of

Human Needs

This story is a part of

Human Needs

Food security experts don't use the word 'famine' casually. To them, it is a precise scientific term. And in order to declare famine, they require three pieces of evidence. The first is a high level of food scarcity.

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"We have to have evidence that 20% or more of the population has extremely limited access to food, and very little ability to cope with those food deficits," said Chris Hillburner, an advisor to the US Famine Early Warning Systems Network or FEWSNET.

The second piece of evidence is a high level of malnutrition. To be a famine, at least 30% of children aged FIVE and below have to be severely malnourished.

The third piece of evidence is a high death rate, said Hillburner.

"The death rate that applies to the entire population has to be above 2 per ten thousand, per day."

That is four times the average death rate in a food secure population.

By May and June of this year, the levels of food access and malnutrition had crossed the famine threshold, says Hillburner. He says FEWSNET had warned the international community that the situation in parts of Somalia might be headed towards a famine.

But they couldn't declare a famine, until they had the third piece of the puzzle–the overall death rate.

That information was collected by the United Nations starting early this month. The United Nations Food Security and Nutrition Analysis Unit for Somalia (FSNAU) has been analyzing those numbers for the past week.

"And as they started to come in, it was very clear what we were seeing," said Grainne Moloney, chief technical advisor at FSNAU.

The death rates in two parts of Southern Somalia–Lower Shabelle and Bakool–had not only reached the famine threshold, but exceeded it.

"In Bakool, the death rate is 2.2," said Moloney. "In Lower Shabelle, there were two surveys. One of the death rates was four. The other death rate was 6."

That's six deaths per ten thousand people per day. Add that up, and you get tens of thousands of people who have already died between April and June of this year.

Situation Likely to Worsen

The latest data on malnutrition reveal levels far above the famine threshold of 30%. In some parts of Southern Somalia, the malnutrition levels are as high as 40 and 50%.

"These are really shocking!" said Moloney. "These have not been seen in this part of the world in I don't know, in 20 years."

The last time Somalia experienced a famine was in 1992. And it is likely that this year's famine will still grow worse.

The latest analysis by FEWSNET and FSNAU predict that within the next couple of months all of Southern Somalia will experience a famine.

"It's absolutely certain that people will start dying at a very high rate," said Moloney.

But if the international community can scale up aid efforts in the region, thousands of lives can still be saved, she added.