By Pascal Cuttat
The recent statement by the United Nations on the humanitarian crises affecting Yemen, Somalia, South Sudan and Nigeria is significant and timely. Substantial resources need to be allocated immediately in order to avert a further spiraling downwards. But, more than this, we need to address the root causes of this desperate situation – and time is short.
Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, along with the ICRC, have been on the ground in these four countries for many years. We witness the massive suffering. Millions of people denied the very basics to survive. Millions of people forced to flee their homes.
Millions of people threatened by starvation. In Yemen, only 45% of health structures are functioning.
Less than 30% of medicines and medical supplies that are needed, are entering the country. In the city of Hodeida, the water system is on the verge of collapse, threatening nearly half a millions people.
In South Sudan, it is estimated that one in three households is in urgent need of food. In Nigeria, in the state of Borno, 300,000 children are expected to suffer from severe acute malnutrition over the next twelve months. The problems facing all these countries are wide-ranging and severe. Agricultural land contaminated with explosives. Livestock unable to survive.
Water, electricity and other vital services damaged and destroyed. Health and humanitarian workers deliberately attacked targeted. The list goes on. The cumulative impact is enormous. Famine, or the threat of famine, is just one of the by-products.
But this situation has not just simply arisen overnight. The cause of severe starvation is not primarily climatic – though that has played a part. It is man-made. The key factor that links all these crises is the existence of long term and apparently, intractable, conflict.
All four countries, and its peoples, have experienced years of violence and suffering. Protracted conflict lies at the root of this humanitarian crisis.
What we do
The ICRC is not standing idle. We are helping to address these issues in all manner of ways. For instance, in South Sudan we currently have six surgical teams working 24 hours a day, every day, trying to help people caught up in the violence: life-saving work. Following the recent upsurge in fighting in Yemen, the ICRC increased its medical assistance by 250% to respond to urgent needs in the treatment of war wounded.
The ICRC provides monthly support to five main hospitals and, on an ad hoc basis, to another 80 health facilities. In parts of Nigeria, we delivered food aid to more than 1.2 million people in 2016.
We do what we can. The overall aim is to stop people from plunging further into poverty and vulnerability. And because of our impartial and neutral stance, the ICRC is able to access areas that others cannot. We deliver emergency aid and, at the same time, strive to keep essential services going over the long term.
This invaluable work is carried out in conjunction with the Red Cross and Red Crescent societies in these countries. For instance, in response to the current situation in Somalia, the ICRC, working alongside the Somali Red Crescent Society, expect to provide a combination of food, cash grants, and access to water and health care to 1.4 million people.
We will continue to work alongside our Movement partners, in a coordinated and joined up way to maximize the impact of our humanitarian work. The ICRC has already begun scaling up its work in these countries. In total, we will be spending at least 400m CHF (about 400m Euros), with the aim of responding to the needs of 4.7 million people. But it is a drop in the ocean. The needs are just so great.
What needs to be done?
Yes, financial support is certainly needed. This will provide immediate assistance in terms of food, water, shelter and health care. To support essential services such as health and water. But the international community must do more.
States need to directly address the root causes of the crisis. Initiatives aimed at conflict prevention and resolution are essential. But we also need to address the here and now. We need to address how war is waged. As living witnesses to what is going on in these countries, we see how health facilities are deliberately attacked, how families are forced to flee their homes, how essential goods and services are blocked.
We see how humanitarian access is curtailed. We see 160 attacks against health structures in Yemen since 2015. We see how, perhaps, three million people in South Sudan have been forced to flee their homes since 2013.
No amount of aid money can negate political obstructionism and a failure to abide by the norms of warfare. States have the power to make a difference, to influence behavior. And they can try harder to do this. States should not support those who fail to abide by the laws of war.
There should be no support without compliance. Civilian areas should not be targeted. The basic services that preserve life – and prevent starvation – need to be protected. Blockades need to be lifted – in the name of humanity.
There is one last important dimension to consider. If we do not deal with this crisis now, it will only get worse. The cost in human lives – and the financial cost – will only get higher the longer we leave it.
It is beholden on those with power to act. They must help deal with the symptoms of conflict but they must also help deal with the root causes. And they must ensure that when war is waged, it is done so within the bounds of humanitarian law. If not, this desperate humanitarian situation will only continue.
The writer is the head of delegation in Rwanda-International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC)