Right now, across east Africa, millions of children and their families are facing starvation as a result of civil war, drought and lack of food.
In South Sudan, famine has already been declared in parts of the country – the first time in six years famine has been declared anywhere in the world – and more than 270,000 children are suffering from severe acute malnutrition. This is the most deadly form of malnutrition which, if untreated, leads to death.
South Sudan is the newest country in the world, after the declaration of independence from Sudan in 2011. Since civil war broke out in 2013, its dreams of independence and a future of hope have been shattered. Those that bear the brunt of the conflict are, as always, innocent children.
Two years ago I first travelled to South Sudan in my role as a UNICEF UK Ambassador and met malnourished children, who were fighting for their lives. Children who don’t have enough food to eat are at risk of illness and disease: pneumonia, diarrhoea, malaria. Children, too often the case in grave emergencies, are always the most vulnerable.
At an emergency feeding centre, I spoke to a mother called Regina with her 15-month-old child, Emmanuela, who was suffering from severe malnutrition. Regina had been caught up in the fighting but managed to escape, travelling miles by foot to reach Wau Shilluk in the north east of the country. Eventually, they arrived at the treatment centre where Emmanuela received lifesaving treatment to bring her back from the brink. Emmanuela is one of many children across the country on the verge of starvation due to a power struggle between political factions which are supposed to be leading the country into prosperity. Sadly, there are currently hundreds of thousands of children like her who need immediate help.
On the same visit, I was privileged to join a UNICEF emergency aid mission by helicopter, called a Rapid Response Mechanism. It is the most efficient and quickest method of delivering life-saving food and supplies to people in remote regions trapped by war. Together with the World Food Programme, which delivers emergency food, UNICEF is able to set up stations in the field, where starving children can be given life-saving food, while at the same time they can be immunised for polio and for measles, and collect the names of unaccompanied children in the hope of reunifying them with their parents and families. The team spent a week on the ground spreading the word so that as many people as possible were able to come and receive the treatment they desperately need. It was a remarkable operation; over the course of 2016, UNICEF carried out 190 of these missions, continuing to reach areas that no other humanitarian organisation can access. UNICEF have the resources, the skill, the knowledge, and the manpower. But more than that, they have the passion, the courage, and the will.
More must be done, however. Famine has been declared – in part due to restricted access to regions of the country, and UNICEF is working hard to combat this. This week they have launched an emergency famine appeal for urgent donations so that they can continue to provide children and families with life-saving food and supplies, not just in South Sudan but across the east Africa region including countries such as Somalia, which is on the brink of famine as a result of severe drought. We have a window of opportunity with the rest of east Africa to ensure agencies such as UNICEF are given unhindered access to deliver emergency aid and prevent another famine such as the one currently and tragically unfolding in South Sudan.
Tom Hiddleston is an actor and UNICEF UK Ambassador.
This piece first appeared in the Metro (UK) on 13 March 2017