South Sudan Is Now Facing Famine. Who Declares A Famine And What Does That Mean? : Goats and Soda Just as we rank hurricanes and earthquakes, officials have developed a five-phase scale to rank food crises.

Who Declares A Famine? And What Does That Actually Mean?

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This week, the United Nations declared that a famine in South Sudan is growing. Nearly 4 million people are already struggling to get enough food, and the U.N. warns that famine will get even worse in the coming months. This is not a new problem. People in South Sudan have been dying of starvation.

So NPR's global health and development correspondent Nurith Aizenman is here to help us understand where that line is between a really, really bad situation and an official declaration of famine. Hi, Nurith.


SHAPIRO: So who decides when mass-starvation crosses that line and it officially becomes a famine?

AIZENMAN: So this is jointly decided by the government of the affected country, agencies of the United Nations. And then there's this special famine early warnings system network - it's called FEWSNET for short - that was created by the U.S. government in the mid-1980s to collect and analyze data from a whole range of sources to monitor the situations in countries.

SHAPIRO: What was going on at that point that made them decide to make this system?

AIZENMAN: This was really done in response to some devastating famines that occurred in East and West Africa in the '80s. A lot of people will probably remember the famine in Ethiopia that was catastrophic. And there was this feeling that the international community wanted to make sure that this never happened again by creating an early warning system. And the idea is not just to monitor how severe a food-crisis situation is but what needs to be done to make sure it doesn't reach the next level.

So the data comes in, and then it's ranked according to this five-point scale kind of like categories that we use to judge the severity of a coming hurricane. Well, this is a scale for judging a food crisis. One is minimal. Five is the magic point at which it's officially a famine.

SHAPIRO: Is that defined by the number of people who die or the percentage of the population that can't get enough food to eat? What are they actually measuring?

AIZENMAN: So they basically use three criteria to determine that it's actually reached that famine level. Number 1 - at least 1 in 5 households in a particular area are facing extreme food shortages. That means that they are skipping meals. They might be eating every other day.

Number 2 - more than 30 percent of people in the area are suffering what's called acute malnutrition. That means their body is now starting to feel the effects of not getting enough food. And in the moderate cases, that might just mean losing muscle tone, but in the severe cases, you know, you get that skeletal look. People's hair starts to turn sort of straw-like. They might not even be able to move very well. They start suffering organ failure.

And then criteria number three for it being a famine is at least 2 people per 10,000 in the population are actually dying every day of the effects of the malnutrition. So there's one region of the country where they declared already in January that there was famine. Now they're saying there's a second part of the country where this is happening, and they're warning that there are other areas that are also at risk.

SHAPIRO: Does a declaration of famine trigger specific things from the global community or from aid groups?

AIZENMAN: So it doesn't actually mandate a response. You know, there's no legal requirement, but it's a clear call to action that if immediate and major steps aren't taken, we're going to start to see a lot of death, widespread death. And the tragedy here is that it shouldn't have even gotten to this point because the whole idea of this early warning system is that before we get to that level-five famine, there are steps that could be taken to keep us from getting to that point, and those warnings weren't heeded.

SHAPIRO: Was that just because there was civil war? I mean what went wrong?

AIZENMAN: Yeah, in South Sudan, the issue has really been the conflict and the inability of humanitarian organizations to get to the people who need help and get them that help.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Nurith Aizenman, thanks a lot.

AIZENMAN: Glad to do it.


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