Fighting famine in a race against time

Nearly 1.4 million children at risk of death in north-east Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen

By Leah Selim
27 March 2017

Conflict, drought, displacement and disease are driving a massive humanitarian crisis, with nearly 1.4 million children at imminent risk of death from severe acute malnutrition this year.

They now face the risk of death from starvation, but also from preventable diseases like cholera and measles, which cause severe diarrhoea and dehydration.

Increasingly, the crisis is one not only of food insecurity but also of clean water and sanitation and health care – especially of disease prevention and treatment to protect already vulnerable malnourished children.

This crisis is largely human-made. Scorched earth tactics by conflicting parties are destroying crops and critical infrastructure like health facilities. Heavy fighting is forcing farmers to abandon their fields, while blocking humanitarian access to people in desperate need of food aid and clean water.

As families flee their homes, children have no access to health and nutrition services, clean water, or adequate sanitation and hygiene – putting them at greater risk of malnutrition. Diseases are spreading rapidly in crowded sites for displaced people. And drought is further exacerbating food crises in other areas, such as the Horn of Africa and Lake Chad basin. 

With so many lives at stake, UNICEF and partners are calling on all parties to the conflicts in each respective country to provide unconditional and unimpeded humanitarian access. Ultimately an end to conflict in all four countries is needed to improve the lives of children and their families now and in the years to come.

A mother feeds her child plumpy nut, Nigeria
North-east Nigeria

In conflict affected north-east Nigeria, an estimated 400,000 children in Borno State will be severely malnourished in 2018. The situation is exacerbated by the lack of access to quality healthcare, with half of the medical facilities destroyed by violence in the past few years. An estimated 1.5 million people lack access to safe water, and as a result, vulnerable children are becoming acutely malnourished after repeated bouts of diarrhoeal disease.

UNICEF is working with local authorities to help rehabilitate clinics, to provide supplies and to train local health workers so they can better respond to the emergency and improve services for the local community in the longer-term. 

Snapshot of UNICEF’s response in 2017:

  • 161,317 children under five treated for severe acute malnutrition
  • 525,719 people provided with access to safe water
  • 3,663,710 people reached with emergency primary health care services

>> Learn more about UNICEF’s Nigeria appeal.


A child looks up at a pot, Somalia

In Somalia, drought is threatening an already fragile population battered by decades of conflict. Almost half the population, or 6.2 million people, are facing acute food insecurity and are in need of humanitarian assistance.

As the situation continues to deteriorate, malnutrition is increasing, and 1.2 million children are expected to  be acutely malnourished in the next year.

Limited access to clean water contributes directly to malnutrition, as children are at risk of diseases like cholera and measles that induce severe diarrhoea and dehydration. Disease outbreaks such as acute watery diarrhoea (AWD)/cholera and measles continue to lead to preventable deaths across the country, with 78,560 and 20,809 cases reported respectively in 2017.

UNICEF and partners have secured a pipeline of life-saving supplies of ready-to-use-therapeutic food that can save thousands of lives. Teams are currently responding in the hardest hit areas, monitoring displacements, cross-border movements, and sudden, life-threatening spikes in malnutrition and disease.

Snapshot of UNICEF’s response in 2017:

  • 1,789,991 people provided with access to safe water
  • 226,137 children under five treated for severe acute malnutrition
  • 1,208,211 women and children provided with emergency lifesaving health services

>> Learn more about UNICEF’s Somalia appeal.


A girl lies in her mother's lap, South Sudan
UNICEF/UN053447/Gonzalez Farran
South Sudan

In South Sudan, a country reeling from conflict, poverty and insecurity, an estimated 250,000 children will be affected by severe acute malnutrition (SAM) in 2018. The famine in two counties of South Sudan that was declared in February 2017 was subsequently reversed in mid-June. This highlights how when UNICEF and partners have access and resources, a swift and robust response makes a difference and can save thousands of lives.

Despite this, more areas are on the verge of famine and 56 per cent of the population still suffer from severe food insecurity as of December 2017.

In 2018, UNICEF will strengthen and expand its programmes in the country, focusing on nutrition initiatives and increasing access to safe water.

Snapshot of UNICEF’s response in 2017:

  • 179,786 children aged 6 to 59 months treated for severe acute malnutrition
  • 781,111 people provided with access to safe water
  • nearly 1.8 million children aged 6-months to 15 years vaccinated against measles

>> Learn more about UNICEF’s South Sudan appeal.


A boy lies on a bed, Yemen

In Yemen, where conflict has been raging for the past two years, almost the entire population needs humanitarian assistance.

The cholera outbreak and devastating number of cases of acute watery diarrhoea is an even greater threat to malnourished children. More than 1 million cases of suspected cases of acute watery diarrhea and cholera have been recorded to date, and an estimated 400,000 children under 5 years will suffer from severe acute malnutrition in 2018.

Snapshot of UNICEF’s response in 2017:

  • Over 4 million people served with support to public water systems
  • 38,924 community mobilisers educating people about how to reduce the risks of cholera
  • 167,338 children aged 6-59 months treated for severe acute malnutrition

>> Learn more about UNICEF’s Yemen appeal.