Australia must act now to prevent global famine disaster

The warning signs have been piling up for months. Food shortages made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic, conflict in Ukraine and climate change are now impacting millions of people globally. As Australia and the world deal with crisis upon crisis, the signs have gone largely ignored. But the world is now barrelling towards the most devastating hunger crisis this century, and we must act.

It is estimated that as many as 928 million people around the world are going to bed hungry, with 49 million people on the brink of starvation. Children in hunger hotspots, particularly girls, are the most impacted.

Right now, at least 45 million children are suffering from wasting, which is the most visible and severe form of malnutrition and potentially life-threatening.

Somalia is among the worst-affected countries, where resilient communities are being smashed by events beyond their control. After suffering through four consecutive climate-fuelled droughts, cattle are dying and families are being forced to leave their homes in search for the means to survive. Hospitals are at breaking point. Wards in some clinics are so full of severely malnourished children that doctors have resorted to treating patients in tents or on mattresses on the ground outside. At least 200 children have died in malnutrition centres since January.

Famine-like conditions can force children into work and marriage for survival, and leave lasting physical and cognitive damage. Similar scenes are playing out across the Horn of Africa, in countries such as Ethiopia and Kenya. More than 18 million people in these three nations are facing acute food insecurity and malnutrition. This number will rise to 20million by September if the rains fail for a fifth time, prices continue to rise, and significant funds are not surged to meet the most urgent hunger needs.

Almost a third of the world’s wheat supplies come from Ukraine or Russia and the war has sent the cost of food sky-high. Africa imported more than 40 per cent of its grain from the two countries before the conflict escalated. Now, the conflict has pushed people in Africa, the MiddleEast and Asia, who were already struggling to feed themselves and their families, to breaking point.

Women and girls account for 70 per cent of the world’s hungry. When food is scarce, girls are often fed less and eat last. The hunger crisis is having a devastating impact on countries in protracted crisis. In Afghanistan, which has already suffered so much, about half of the population is facing critical levels of hunger. Reports from aid workers seeing these impacts first hand are devastating. Many seasoned humanitarians are deeply distressed by the immense scale of this looming tragedy and the impact it is already having on children and families in some of the world’s most vulnerable countries.

What is most concerning is that we have been here before. In 2011, Somalia experienced a devastating famine that killed more than 250,000 people — half of them children under the age of five. The international community failed to act in time. Eleven years later and we are repeating the same mistakes. This time, it is far more severe because of the compounding crises, which is why the international community must wake from its slumber before it’s too late. There is little time left to spare.

But we can work together to fight famine and prevent a global disaster.

In June, the G7 pledged $5.61billion to fight global hunger. While every dollar counts, the commitment falls short of what is needed to prevent humanitarian catastrophe. Australia can help by pledging funding of its own ahead of the October Budget. We are calling on theAlbanese Government to immediately commit $150million in urgent famine prevention relief for the world’s worst hunger hot spots.

Australia can once again position itself as a principled humanitarian actor on the global stage by also committing to a long-term strategy that complements global efforts to address the root causes of food insecurity.

An additional investment of$200m annually across three years would help to cushion vulnerable countries against future food shocks. We know Australians are exhausted by the successive crises of recent years. Many are still recovering from the trauma of lockdowns and losing loved ones to COVID-19, while cost of living pressures are biting at home too.

But we also know Australians are big-hearted and generous in times of great need, even when an emergency is unfolding on the other side of the world. Australia prides itself on being a richly diverse and multicultural nation and therefore the people being crushed by this crisis are not “them” they are, in fact, “us”. They are connected to many families and communities in Australia who have also been raising the alarm but have struggled to be heard.

How we respond to this latest crisis is a choice. We urge the Government to make the right one.

Susanne Legena is chief executive of Plan International Australia; Mat Tinkler is chief executive of Save the Children Australia; and Lyn Morgain is chief executive of Oxfam Australia