Church aids people hit by Africa's famine

More than 23 million people, almost half of them children, in the Horn of Africa are at risk of dying from starvation.

Driven mainly by conflict, the famine in South Sudan and similar conditions in Somalia, Yemen and Nigeria are cutting off access to water and food supplies for millions. Thousands of people and animals have already died, while millions of others seek sanctuary in other war-torn regions.

In South Sudan, where an ongoing civil war between government and opposition forces began to intensify again last summer, people are eating tree bark, wild berries, grass and water hyacinths.

“It can keep you alive, but there is no nutritional value in any of those things,” said Jerry Farrell, the South Sudan country representative for Catholic Relief Services (CRS).

Perfect storm

Farrell told Our Sunday Visitor that the growing crisis in the region is almost entirely due to conflict, which disrupts food supply chains in Yemen. Fighting also makes it difficult for people in South Sudan to plant and harvest crops.

The situation in South Sudan is the first time that the United Nations has declared a famine since 2010 in Somalia. That famine lasted two years and resulted in the deaths of 260,000 people. In the current crisis, tens of thousands of people have been killed in clashes. The fighting has uprooted 3.6 million people in the region and placed millions of lives at risk.

That faminelike conditions are now present in several countries in the region at the same time is unusual, said Farrell, who compared the crisis to a perfect storm.

Catholic Relief Services reports that nearly half of the South Sudanese population — about 4.9 million people — are going hungry. That number is expected to grow when the “lean season” arrives in July just before harvest and as food reserves become exhausted.

In Somalia, plagued by decades of unrest, the government has declared a national emergency due to a food crisis and drought. Bishop Giorgio Bertin of Djibouti, administrator of the Diocese of Mogadishu, urged an international conference in London on May 11, to work to alleviate the drought.

“The situation seems to be improving as some food aid is getting through and food prices are lowering,” Stephen Hilbert, a foreign policy adviser for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, told OSV regarding Somalia.

The Red Cross in Kenya says 2.9 million people there are facing severe hunger.

In Ethiopia, another 5.6 million people will be dependent on food aid until the next harvest, according to CRS. Also in Yemen, which has had a civil war since 2015, a blockade at the ports is preventing food from reaching the population.

Water and war

Drought and other effects of climate change — Farrell said Yemen has been ravaged by torrential rains and flooding that haven’t occurred in 40 years — are compounding years of political instability and fighting that have forced millions to flee from their homes and farms to neighboring countries.

In South Sudan, for example, people have sought refuge in Uganda and Darfur, a war-torn region in Sudan that has seen nonstop war between government troops and separatist rebels since February 2003.

“That they would seek sanctuary in a place that’s widely conflicted tells you something about what’s happening here,” Farrell said.

South Sudan currently has 2 million internally displaced people, with about 10 percent of them staying in temporary camps. The majority fled into hard-to-reach regions that present challenges for CRS workers to reach with emergency supplies of food, clean water and medical equipment.

“If there were peace, there would be little starvation in South Sudan,” Farrell said. “It’s a very rich country in terms of natural resources.”

Hilbert concurred: “Famine conditions could be ended or averted if food aid could reach those who need it urgently.”

Range of relief

In South Sudan, CRS, in partnership with the U.N. World Food Program, airdrops food supplies into areas that are difficult to reach because of insecurity or a lack of infrastructure. CRS staff then hike for days to reach those locations and coordinate food distribution. CRS also teaches people to repair boreholes, a water source.

“The bulk of what we do is not food distribution,” said Farrell, noting that CRS helps communities improve their water and food systems, repair infrastructure and focus on early childhood development and educational programs.

In Somalia, U.S. government funding helps CRS provide emergency food aid for those displaced by violence and the threat of the Islamic extremist group al-Shabab. CRS also provides cash assistance to people in rural areas affected by drought to buy food and water.

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Diseases such as cholera are also a problem. A cholera outbreak last summer in South Sudan was the country’s third since 2014. More than 144 people in South Sudan have died of cholera since last July. Farrell said two of his staff members in South Sudan have lost infants to the disease.

“It’s crazy, because you think, at least, you should be able to keep the children of your staff safe,” Farrell said. “If you can’t do that, you think to yourself, why are you even coming to work?”

According to CRS, an estimated 885,800 South Sudanese refugees as of the end of April had fled to Uganda. The vast majority — around 86 percent — are women and children.

CRS, in partnership with the U.N. World Food Program, has airdropped more than 15,000 metric tons of food for 180,000 people in South Sudan. In neighboring Uganda, relief organizations work in the world’s largest refugee camp in Bidibidi to provide water, sanitation and hygiene assistance. In addition to providing financial assistance and pressing government leaders, Farrell said people in the United States can pray.

“They really value that. People want to know that they’re cared about,” Farrell said. “Here, no one is a stranger to us. Everybody we see is our brother and sister.”

“The people of the continent of Africa are embracing the message of Jesus strongly, in spite of such challenges as famine, enormous debt, disease, political unrest and severe poverty,” Cardinal Joseph W. Tobin of Newark, New Jersey, told OSV. He chairs the U.S. bishops’ Subcommittee on the Church in Africa, overseeing a national collection, the Africa Solidarity Fund, funding projects building up the Church in Africa. Quoting John Paul II, Cardinal Tobin added, “Africa is not destined for death, but for life!”

Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly noted that two children of CRS staffers died from the famine, not from cholera. We apologize for the error.

Brian Fraga writes from Massachusetts.