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Nutrition in emergencies

UNICEF Image: A group of children having a meal on the ground.
© UNICEF/UNI192506/Badrul Hassan
Children are having their last meal of the day at Basic Education High School in Hakha City, Myanmar. The school served as a temporary shelter for more than 1600 people after roads were washed out due to floods and landslides.

When disaster strikes, UNICEF is there.

Around the world, the number and scale of emergencies continue to rise – and children are most affected.

Climate change, environmental degradation and natural hazards such as earthquakes, floods and drought are wreaking havoc in vulnerable communities. Violent conflicts threaten the lives of millions of children and their families. And diseases, such as the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, further threaten the health and nutrition of children in settings that are already fragile.

At the same time, economic inequality is growing in every country in the world and the poor are the most susceptible to food price inflation.

Emergency situations or crises are often characterized by limited access to adequate safe food and water, as well as disruptions in health and nutrition services and constraints to protecting, promoting and supporting optimal infant and young child feeding.

Young children and pregnant and breastfeeding women are extremely vulnerable in emergencies and their nutritional status must be protected to prevent undernutrition and guarantee survival.

Coordinated efforts to ensure equity, rights and survival

UNICEF’s largest programmes are in countries that experience frequent humanitarian crises, or that are considered to be fragile contexts. In humanitarian crises, UNICEF’s foremost priority is to prevent death from starvation and disease and to reduce malnutrition.

To do this, UNICEF supports mothers to safely and adequately feed their babies during emergencies. Where children are suffering from acute malnutrition, UNICEF provides therapeutic feeding to save lives and delivers essential micronutrients to prevent and treat deficiencies. These are critical interventions to support infant and young child survival. Close coordination with water and sanitation and health care programmes also help to safeguard children’s nutritional status.

Over the long term, UNICEF works with communities to address the underlying problems that create these dire situations and to build resilience in households, communities and systems to withstand crises and cumulative stresses.

UNICEF works with partners in emergency settings to design and deliver key nutrition interventions as part of the emergency nutrition response. Equitable access to services and timely provision of essential supplies are key to this work’s success. Therapeutic foods to treat acute malnutrition, micronutrients to address deficiencies, or counselling to ensure that appropriate nutrition practices continue are all crucial.

A coordinated response is critical in emergencies. At the global level, UNICEF leads the Global Nutrition Cluster – a task force to safeguard and improve the nutritional status of emergency affected populations by ensuring a timely, well-coordinated and effective response at scale. The Global Nutrition Cluster guarantees global level partnership, guidance and resource mobilization to support coordinated rapid emergency response where the scale of emergency is so large that no single agency or national authority can address it alone.

At the country level, UNICEF is mandated as the lead agency for nutrition and heads emergency coordination efforts in over 60 countries. Through this role, and with partners, UNICEF works to promote coordinated, timely and effective nutrition emergency response both at national and sub-national levels.

Risk reduction and resilience building are paramount to all of UNICEF’s work in humanitarian situations. Disaster and human-made risks must be anticipated, prevented and mitigated. In both development and emergency contexts, UNICEF supports countries to prepare for emergencies, promote rapid recovery and build resilience.

UNICEF’s impact

UNICEF’s humanitarian responses in nutrition encompass a number of key actions:

  • Providing life-saving treatment – UNICEF is the main supplier of ready-to-use therapeutic foods and works with partners to manage the urgent treatment of millions of children suffering from severe acute malnutrition every year.
  • Delivering key micronutrients to vulnerable populations – UNICEF ensures that women and children have access to supplementation or fortified foods to address micronutrient deficiencies, which are often exacerbated in emergencies.
  • Supporting infant and young child feeding – UNICEF supports programmes that provide counselling and establish safe spaces for infant feeding. UNICEF also monitors the distribution of, and in some cases, provides breast milk substitutes.
  • Conducting assessment and surveillance – UNICEF supports timely nutritional assessment and surveillance systems in order to track malnutrition rates and improve programme performance.
  • Strengthening monitoring – UNICEF provides support to strengthen food and nutrition security monitoring systems in many countries, including building capacities within Ministries of Health to manage health facility data.
  • Developing norms and standards – UNICEF develops key guidelines to support emergency planning and response – for example, contributing to interagency guidance on Nutritional care of children and adults with Ebola virus disease in treatment centres.
  • Fostering resilience – UNICEF works with communities to plan for, withstand and bounce back from crises and enable local communities to be less dependent on outside interventions.

Country snapshots

In Liberia: during the 2014 Ebola crisis, UNICEF worked with the government to update nutrition protocols and policies in the context of the virus. More broadly, UNICEF and its partners also published guidance for all Ebola-affected countries, including joint (WHO/UNICEF) guidance on infant feeding in the context of Ebola.

In Somalia: UNICEF and partners are working to strengthen household and community resilience, including by improving basic social services and establishing predictable safety nets. The resilience programme builds capacity in public health, education, protection and governance at local level. This contributes to emergency preparedness because communities become less dependent on outside interventions and more capable of undertaking these important functions themselves during a crisis.

In South Sudan: UNICEF led the 2014 emergency nutrition response to reach children affected by acute malnutrition. Between March and December 2014, UNICEF, World Food Programme, and implementing partners carried out 34 joint rapid response missions that resulted in direct service delivery to more than 603,000 people, including 132,000 children under 5, all in hard-to-reach areas in conflict-affected states.



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