The humans of the hunger crisis
Photos by Sebastian Rich
Climate-driven drought and flooding have created a cycle of horror and hunger across the Horn of Africa and neighboring countries. On World Humanitarian Day, UNICEF pays tribute to a few of the many healthcare and community workers, humanitarians, and moms and dads working to save and protect the lives of children living on the frontlines of the climate crisis.
Photographer Sebastian Rich caught up with some of them during his travels to South Sudan and Somalia on behalf of UNICEF and The European Union. Their life-saving work is being supported by the European Union’s Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations (ECHO).
Betty Achan, 50, has been looking after some of South Sudan’s most vulnerable children for the better part of 30 years – many of those spent in Juba’s only children’s hospital. Becoming a nurse was her calling. “Sometimes I sleep here,” she said. On this particular day, she had 20 tiny patients and their worried parents, with more coming. Not all children make it, and it’s emotionally draining, but Betty keeps going. “If we don’t come, all these children will die. We have to come,” she said.
Outside in the hospital courtyard sits Dhieu Deng, 28, himself a nurse, and the father of Ajang Dhieu, just 18 months old. Ajang is anemic and very thin. Dhieu and his wife, Achol Deng, 26, brought their son to the hospital by bus, a day’s drive from their town of Guolyar. The two have a five year old son at home and decided to make the journey together to save their youngest. “If I’m not here there is no one to support my wife,” said Dhieu.
Dr. Diang Puch, 36, works at Bentiu hospital where he treats malnourished children. Flooding here has caused an upsurge in children suffering from severe acute malnutrition, the most dangerous form of malnutrition. Floodwaters in Bentiu swept away homes, cattle, crops and left children and families without food, drinking water and shelter. It’s making the children sick. “More children are coming with the flooding,” said Dr. Puch, explaining that with cows dead or gone there is no longer any milk for the children. His biggest worry is that children will become too weak to fight off childhood diseases like measles.
Nyaruon, 18 months, is one of the patients Dr. Puch has treated. She was brought to Bentiu hospital by her mother, Nyaruon, 30, when the little girl got diarrhea and her stomach started swelling. They too were displaced by flooding. “The water came quickly taking one village after another,” said Nyaruon. “It started in February 2021 filling up rivers and we thought when the rain stopped the water would recede. But the river overflowed, overtaking the villages,” she explained. “When we were in the village we had food and cows,” she said. “We never had problems with hunger in the village.” Nyajal refuses to give up on her dreams for her children: “I wish for good health and a good education.”
Angelina Mycn, 26, is a nurse focused on maternal infant and young child nutrition. She teaches mothers about the importance of exclusive breastfeeding. “I want to help my community,” she said. Angelina has lived in Bentiu since conflict drove her from her own village. “My children are born here,” she said. However, life in Bentiu has become extra difficult. “There are a lot of people coming from flooded areas. They live with relatives here. It’s very difficult, their cattle died or are taken to higher ground far away. And without the cows we’re not getting milk for the children,” she said. “The help from outside is helping us but we need more support.”
Lina Nyabol, 27, is a Nutrition Assistant with World Relief, a UNICEF partner, and is teaching mothers in Bentiu about the best nutritional practices for their children. She also monitors the children’s weight and height as part of preventing malnutrition. “I follow up on who is progressing,” she said. Many have become sick because of the flood waters that are refusing to recede. “Before the flooding you could move from place to place but now, people are coming here searching for food and shelter,” she said. “But there is not enough to share.”
Meanwhile, in Somalia, the worst drought in 40 years is starting to claim the lives of the youngest there – a situation playing out across the Horn of Africa.
Hubi Ahmed, 24, works for the NGO CEDA at the UNICEF-supported nutrition centre in Dollow. She has provided mothers with counseling for the past two years. Hubi is especially worried because of a measles outbreak that could quickly prove deadly for the most malnourished children. Hubi blames the drought that’s draining access to food and water and driving up malnutrition. “I want to help my people now as I’m from this community,” said Hubi. “This is the worst I have seen. This is the third year without rain. Many animals have died due to the drought.”
Faduma Abdi Kadir Hussein, 52, is from the local Dollow community and is helping to organize the informal displacement site. She owns the land and gave desperate families permission to stay there. “I’m from the community,” said Hussein. “I want to help. I want them to feel safe and for them to get assistance. The people here have three needs: water, shelter and food,” she said. But needs are far from met. “People are sleeping in the open,” she said. When people arrived after having walked often for days to flee drought the community gave them what little they had, including torn cloth for makeshift shelters. The community cannot afford to give anything else. They too are trying to survive the drought. “Everyone here is suffering,” says Faduma. “We are suffering together. We feel forgotten.”
Riyak Yusuf, 23, works at a UNICEF-supported nutrition centre in Dollow where she screens children for malnutrition. They are seeing more children who are malnourished and with health issues. “The drought is the biggest problem for health,” said Riyak. “I have worked here for four years because I want to help my people,” she said, noting that this is the worst she has seen. Riyak said the drought has affected everyone here. Her family, from parents to grandparents, have been displaced, and their livestock is gone. They now rely on her income. “Eight people depend on me,” she said.
Through ECHO’s support, UNICEF and partners have been able to reach tens of thousands of women and children in South Sudan and Somalia alone to prevent malnutrition, while providing life-saving treatment for those who have already become severely malnourished. It is part of a three year, 48 million EURO donation to UNICEF from ECHO to support Ethiopia, Somalia and South Sudan. In the last two decades, these three countries have witnessed repeated droughts, floods, outbreaks of disease and instability. The aim is to reach 3.1 million severely malnourished children in the three countries over three years while building stronger health and nutrition systems to better withstand future shocks.