The United Nations is about to confront what could turn out to be its worst humanitarian crisis since its creation as the end World War II, the horrifying possibility of full-out famine in four countries simultaneously.
According to UN humanitarian director Stephen O’Brien, the international organization will need at least $4.4 billion by July to prevent mass starvation in South Sudan, Somalia, Yemen and northeastern Nigeria.
So far, it has been able to amass only $423 million, less than 10 percent of its targeted goal.
The four-nation famine could engulf as many as 20 million people.
The last time a famine was officially declared by the United Nations (in Somalia in 2011), at least 250,000 people — mostly women and children — died from hunger and related complications.
And half of those died before the international community even took notice and began tepid measures to reverse the crisis.
Famine has already been declared in parts of South Sudan, and it is only a matter of weeks until Somalia and Yemen follow suit.
The U.S. Agency for International Development has declared that large-scale food shortages are now underway in northern Nigeria, but UN aid workers have not been able to assess or confirm that declaration because of serious security risks in that region.
All four of the threatened states are considered conflict zones, but there are sharp differences as to the needs and situations of each.
Yemen’s situation could be the worst, with two-thirds of the population — nearly 19 million people — in need of immediate aid.
Devastated by a war between Iranian-backed Houthi rebels and the Saudi-backed government, the country has been on the brink of collapse for the last two years, and the situation is so grave that the United Nations has not been able to keep track of the mounting causalities.
In South Sudan, where a political rivalry between the world’s youngest country’s two leaders has made it ungovernable, an estimated 7.5 million people are on the verge of starvation, and at least 270,000 of them face “the imminent risk of death,” according to UN officials.
And then there is Somalia, which saw more than 130,000 people die of hunger six years ago before the international community got around to designating its crisis as a famine.
Not only are the Somali people once again facing famine, but they are also threatened by a severe shortage of potable water.
And as for northeastern Nigeria — primarily the states of Borno, Adamawa and Yobe — some 8.5 million people are desperately in need of food aid, but most cannot be reached because of the ongoing violence by Boko Haram and other terrorist groups.
Quelling the four famines will not be easy, and getting the money needed to buy food is not the only concern.
War and conflict have made delivering aid to the affected regions a high-risk endeavor, and there is always the worry that government corruption and local gangs will keep the donated food from reaching its intended audience.
In South Sudan, several UN aid workers have already been killed.
Meanwhile, the international community seems to be reliving its mistakes from 2011, dragging its heels while millions of people face eminent death from starvation.
Every day the world postpones a collective and effective response to the pending four-nation famine, more people face death.
And it is only a matter of time until the threat of starvation expands into surrounding countries, creating a yet even more serious humanitarian crisis.
Thérèse Margolis can be reached at [email protected].