Cucumber seeds and beekeeping kits: the new ways to fight famine

A child at Misan camp for displaced people, on the outskirts of Mogadishu. The UN says half the population of Somalia are facing acute food insecurity.

Photograph: Xinhua/Barcroft Image

A complex and innovative aid operation to save millions of lives in South Sudan, Somalia, Yemen and Nigeria is under way, but success hinges on donors meeting the $5.6bn cost

Step out of Juba’s makeshift tented terminal and you’ll see them lined up along the tarmac as far as the eye can see: hulking white cargo planes stamped with the acronyms of UN aid agencies and non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

But the fleets of aircraft that dominate the airport of South Sudan’s capital are just one part of a complex and sophisticated humanitarian response to famine, which was declared in parts of the country’s north on Monday and looms simultaneously in three other countries for the first time in modern history.

Aid these days for countries such as Yemen, Somalia, Nigeria and South Sudan – where eight airdrops of food are planned on Tuesday to some of the country’s worst-affected communities – means far more than just sacks of grain being trucked out to remote areas. The material being delivered today includes highly nutritious “super cereals”, seeds and tools for fishermen and farmers, even boat engines, irrigation pipes and beekeeping kits.

Non-food aid, too, is increasingly prominent, with cash transfers delivered via credit cards for use in local markets and tracked by aid planners.

For those at the centre of masterminding a massive food distribution push already under way, however, the difference between success and failure hinges on whether donors will stump up the more than $5.6bn (£4.5bn) requested to tackle food insecurity in the four countries.

“There are a huge number of crises in the world, and to have four countries on the brink of famine at the same time is unprecedented,” says Denise Brown, director of emergencies at the World Food Programme (WFP), the word’s largest humanitarian agency fighting hunger.

“We have never seen that before and with all of these crises, they are protracted situations and they require significant financing. The international community has got to find a way of stepping up to manage this situation until political solutions are found,” she adds.

A veteran of Somalia’s 2011 famine, which claimed the lives of more than a quarter of a million people, one of Brown’s priorities is scaling up its food assistance caseload for the country to reach 2.5 million people, up from 500,000.

On Tuesday, Save the Children, warned that the crisis in Somalia could be worse than 2011. An estimated 363,000 children are already malnourished, and the organisation’s staff have recently been seeing a significant increase in severe cases coming through the doors of their clinics.

Carcasses of dead cattle outside the town of Dhobley in Somalia in 2011, the year famine was declared in the country. Photograph: Phil Moore/AFP/Getty Images

While Somalia is receiving more cash transfers, food aid is also being stored in huge warehouses in Mogadishu after being shipped north from the Kenyan port of Mombasa with guards armed against the continued threat of pirates.

For South Sudan, where access to various parts of the country continues to be denied to aid groups amid government offensives against rebels, the response is a blended one. Airdrops have been under way for some time using large Soviet-designed Iluyshin II-76 cargo planes flying out from Ethiopia or Uganda, often piloted by Ukrainians. In the first two weeks of February, 77 airdrops were made.

Both South Sudan, where 100,000 people are facing starvation, and Somalia are receiving basic foodstocks – tending towards sorghum, pulses and vegetable oil in the former with rice and enriched oil going to the latter – both are also getting large quantities of the two main kinds of specialised nutrition products.

One is super cereal, a fortified blend of maize and soya flour aimed at young children and other vulnerable groups such as pregnant and nursing women. The other range of products are the peanut-based pastes designed to prevent malnutrition and treat starving children such as Plumpy’Sup and Plumpy’Nut, dubbed one of the 21st century’s true superfoods.

Brown says that though Plumpy’Sup is usually given to children under the age of two, WFP’s distributions have been expanded to include all children under five in north-eastern Nigeria due to the severity of the situation there.

While airdrops are not taking place in Nigeria, teams of specialists are being helicoptered into remote areas, where they remain for up to a week assessing levels of malnutrition before food is sent in on trucks, being careful to avoid the ongoing offensive by Nigerian security forces against Boko Haram.

At least 70% of the food being distributed comes from local markets, according to Brown, although the plan is to move more towards cash transfers, a form of aid that has recently come under attack in the UK.

Nigeria was among the first countries where an emergency response in a conflict setting was launched with cash. The technology used is Scope (System of Cash Operations): people are given electronic cards, on which they register their information and fingerprints. In the same way as a debit card, it connects to the database to confirm the individual’s identity. When they are used in a shop, the sum spent is deducted from the balance on the card.

In Yemen, aid efforts have been complicated by the bitter conflict pitting the Saudi-led coalition of Gulf countries and the government against Houthi rebels; the country imported 90% of its food even before the conflict. While making airdrops of food, Saudi forces have also been allegedly targeting warehouses and factories storing and processing foodstuffs.

WFP has been shipping in 70% of its food through Hodeidah port and about 30% through Aden.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has been trucking in 35,000 “livelihood assistance kits” tailored to the needs of different groups. Fishing communities get sets containing an ice-box, boat engine and a GPS/fish finder, while farmers get kits with irrigation pipes and bags of cucumber seeds. Beekeeping and dairy kits are also on offer.

The response in all four countries comes amid warnings that efforts are being severely hampered by the lack of funding. The percentage of funds given by donors so far to this year’s global humanitarian appeals amount to 0.9% for South Sudan, 1.7% for Somalia, 1.8% for Nigeria, and 2% for Yemen.

Reluctant to criticise donors, the WFP uses a system of historical trend analysis, which enables it to estimate in advance how generous – or stingy – donor countries are likely to be.

However, the UN refugees agency, one of the 120 organisations in need of funding from the overall humanitarian response plan for Yemen, has gone on the record to warn that its operations in the state are facing a critical shortfall in funding as conditions deteriorate further.

Even before this year’s appeals pick up, funding for all four crises from last year remain low. The Nigerian appeal is only 52% funded, for Somalia the figure is 54% and for Yemen 57%. South Sudan’s appeal received 85%.

Meanwhile, pressure is building ahead of a major international conference being hosted by Nigeria, Norway and Germany in Oslo on Friday to focus attention on and increase the financial support for the crisis in north-eastern Nigeria and the wider Lake Chad region.

Jamie Drummond, co-founder of campaigning organisation One, said: “We cannot afford another half-hearted response as witnessed last year.

“Donors need to move faster and be better coordinated. Lacklustre support will have disastrous consequences for the millions in need this year, and in the long-term.”

A statement endorsed by 16 NGOs including Médecins du Monde, Oxfam and the International Rescue Committee, said that governments, the UN, NGOs and donors had all been slow to acknowledge the scale of what was described as Africa’s biggest humanitarian and protection crisis.


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Cucumber seeds and beekeeping kits: the new ways to fight famine
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