1. Home
  2. Africa

How to declare a famine: A primer from South Sudan

Understanding the complexities of food security analysis in South Sudan, where more than seven million people are at risk of starvation

Stefanie Glinski/IRIN

A series of maps released last week showing progressively larger areas of red projects a grim picture of growing hunger in South Sudan, and warns that famine could break out again in some areas unless adequate aid is delivered. UN agencies say that the “food security outlook has never been so dire as it is now,” and that roughly seven million people will require humanitarian aid to avert starvation. 

Those maps and accompanying data are a prerequisite for the planning and delivery of such assistance. The situation in South Sudan offers a look at the steps involved in declaring and hopefully averting famine, including how those maps are produced and why they matter.

Conflict and hunger

The latest data show that after four years of war, nearly two-thirds of South Sudan’s population, more than seven million people will need food aid to stave off starvation in the May-July “lean season” – the hiatus between the depletion of food stocks and the next harvest.

In January, one million people were already severely “food insecure,” a 40 percent increase compared with the same time last year. (For an area to be “food secure” all inhabitants must have constant physical and economic access to the food needed to live an active and healthy life. For more on this and other technical terms related to food and nutrition, see our jargon buster.)

Conflict is the main contributor to hunger in the world’s youngest country, which celebrated independence from Sudan in 2011 but fell back into civil war two years later.

A tanking economy and restricted access for aid workers make it increasingly hard for the South Sudanese to get their hands on food, and for aid agencies to evaluate the situation on the ground.  According to OCHA, the UN’s aid coordination body, 30 aid workers were killed in South Sudan in 2017. The killings were among more than 1,000 “incidents”, including murder, robbery, looting, threats and harassment, that impeded humanitarian access.

In February 2017, famine was declared in the rebel-held Unity State counties of Leer and Mayendit, where some 100,000 people faced starvation. The declaration led to an escalated humanitarian response in the affected areas, and the famine status was lifted in June.


Use slider to show projection


Identifying Famine

The increasingly red maps are part of a data package published by the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC).

Developed by the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), IPC brings together UN agencies, international non-profits, and governments. It monitors indicators of food insecurity and categorise that information  into five colour-coded “phases”: pale green for “Minimal”, yellow for “Stressed”, orange for “Crisis”, red for “Emergency” and burgundy for “Famine/Humanitarian Catastrophe.”

The aim is to provide “evidence-based, actionable knowledge to decision makers.”

Adnan Khan, the South Sudan country director for the UN’s World Food Programme, told IRIN that his organisation uses the IPC’s analysis “to inform its emergency response programming, including information on the location of people mostly in need.”
“As was the case in 2017 when famine was declared, WFP is eager to respond rapidly to sudden deterioration of food security conditions as indicated by IPC’s current and projected food security results, for example by scaling up its operations to meet acute needs, prepositioning food before the onset of the rains, shifting resources to identified hotspots and augmenting frequency of air drop cycles.”

Patrick Codjia, a nutrition specialist with UNICEF, explained that the information provided by the IPC is used to raise awareness, nationally and internationally, so as to mobilize the resources needed to address a current or looming crisis.

It is also used to “prioritize areas in urgent need of humanitarian response and assess ahead of time the areas that are likely to reflect a dire humanitarian situation to trigger early humanitarian action,” he told IRIN.

Famine, the worst-case scenario, “is a scientific classification based on standards, evidence, and technical consensus,” according to the IPC.

Strict criteria must be met to declare the “rare and extreme” case of famine, which the IPC describes as the “absolute inaccessibility of food to an entire population or sub-group of a population, potentially causing death in the short term.”

A famine declaration requires evidence of crude death rates higher than two per 10,000 people per day, a global acute malnutrition rate greater than 30 percent, and an extreme lack of food affecting more than 20 percent of the population. (The IPC uses slightly different criteria to project a famine. See here for details.)

A famine declaration must  be approved by the IPC’s Famine Review Committee (FRC), composed of leading food security experts.

In determining food security phases, the IPC takes into account a wide range of factors, such as weather patterns, economy, access, security, and political stability. Gathering such information, especially in the midst of conflict, can be challenging.

Stefanie Glinski/IRIN
Abuk Garang, 33, mother of six, from Aweil

Abuk Garang, 33, mother of six, from Aweil

“Here in Aweil, the economic crisis is my biggest challenge. I sell vegetables in the market, but often I go home without making anything. My children stay home alone when I’m away. Everything is expensive and I often worry because I took out a loan to support my business and don’t know how I will be able to repay it. My five-year-old son died of malaria last year. I wasn’t able to take him to the hospital. We are barely able to afford one meal a day. I spend all my time providing for my family, and the little money I make is used for food. I wish we could go back to Sudan, where we lived for many years. My husband is there. He deserted us and I am responsible for my family.”


Collecting data, with difficulty

“Almost by definition, the risk of famine is highest in the most difficult-to-reach places,” food security experts Dan Maxwell and Peter Hailey, who both sit on the FRC, wrote in a recent paper.

“Humanitarian access – whether for analysis, response, or both – can be extremely limited in contemporary conflict. […] Even when data collection is possible, it is very hurried because of security concerns.”

The 2017 famine was declared “not in full accordance with the minimal evidence requirements of the IPC standard protocols,” the IPC itself said at the time.

Researchers gathering the contributing data would have preferred more respondents to their nutrition surveys, so as to make the declaration “without a doubt,” explained FAO food security analyst Nicholas Kerandi.

But this would have entailed travelling to remote islands in the swamps, which in many cases was impractical.

“The available evidence was still strong enough for experts to declare a famine,” Kerandi added. “They allow for ‘professional judgment’ in emergency situations, as it is not always possible to get full data, especially if the bullets are flying and you can’t get to the people.”

The most recent IPC results have no “data gaps”, according to the FAO, because although some areas were inaccessible because of conflict, people who had recently fled them provided information.  

“Hundreds of people are involved in the collection of facts, and we have eleven bases with national and international analysts spread across the country,” explains Katie Rickard, the country coordinator for REACH, a joint initiative of the non-profit ACTED, the think-tank IMPACT, and the UN’s Operational Satellite Applications Programme that develops information tools for the humanitarian sector. REACH works closely with the IPC in South Sudan, where it conducts statistical field research.

IPC data is gathered from various sources. One of the biggest data streams is from the UN-funded Food Security and Nutrition Missions South Sudan (FSNMS), carried out by FAO, aid agencies and government counterparts. It is complemented by additional food security data assessments, research findings from studies, satellite images indicating weather patterns and information about access restrictions faced by humanitarian workers based on reports by the UN Mission in South Sudan (UNMISS) and the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD), a bloc of eight regional states. The IPC assesses all the data, and all participants agree on the food security status in various areas.

Stefanie Glinski/IRIN
Nyariaka Simon, 30, mother of five, from Bentiu

Nyariaka Simon, 30, mother of five, from Bentiu

“I receive all of my family’s food through distributions. We have been living in [the Protection of Civilian site] Bentiu for the past three years. It’s dangerous outside. We escaped fighting and feel safe, but there is no food here. My husband works in Sudan but doesn’t visit us and doesn’t send any money. I want the war to stop. If there was peace, we could go home, plant crops and start businesses. We wouldn’t be hungry.”


Political challenges

When the Southern Sudan chapter of the IPC was launched in 2007 (four years before secession from Sudan), the government of the then autonomous region was initially sceptical. It had  little trust and interest in the international community measuring food security, citing bias and inaccuracy as concerns.

“I was the IPC’s first enemy,” said Philip Dau, Director for Monitoring and Evaluation at South Sudan’s National Bureau of Statistics, adding, “a famine declaration should be released by the president.”

Yet the government soon realised that it was nearly impossible to receive food assistance or funding from donors without thorough research and internationally shared data.

“The IPC results brought more money, and we accepted the protocols and procedures,” said Dau, who now also co-chairs the IPC in South Sudan.

Stefanie Glinski/IRIN
Moses, 14, from Aburroc

Moses, 14, from Aburroc

“I came to Aburroc when I fled fighting. I don’t know where my family is and they don’t know that I am here. A man in the market helped me. He told me that he would give me food if I sold his goods. There are only onions and rice in the market, nothing else. It’s all I eat every day.”


Step-by-step analysis

Over recent weeks, in a room crammed with more than 120 analysts and nutritionists from a range of UN agencies, NGOs, and the government, the countrywide IPC data, collected over three months, was evaluated.

“The first step is to look at the collected interviews,” explained the IPC’s regional coordinator, Kamau Wanjohi.

“From there we classify the severity of the situation and score the reliability and accuracy of the data. If it’s not trustworthy, it’s either cut off or scored as only ‘somewhat reliable’. The final steps are a thorough vetting process and quality control that ends with the Famine Review Committee defending the data and communicating the outcomes.”

When analysts jump on a plane or helicopter to conduct interviews in the most remote parts of South Sudan, questions usually focus on farming, access to markets, number of meals eaten a day, observed rain patterns and mortality.

Yet, according to Maxwell and Hailey, potentially valuable data – on nutrition and mortality, for instance – is sometimes excluded, or given a very low reliability score, because it is be deemed out of date.

“This frequently means that while famine may be occurring, it is impossible to state with certainty,” they wrote in their paper. “A concerted effort to coordinate data collection efforts would help address this problem.”

“Trends are the best way to be sure that data is accurate,” explained Rickard, of REACH.

“We compare people’s answers from before and after food distributions and evaluate what has changed.”

Stefanie Glinski/IRIN
Mary Mabior, 37, mother of six from Wau

Mary Mabior, 37, mother of six from Wau

“After my village was looted, I decided to take my two youngest children away. We now live between Wau and Aweil, but there isn’t a nearby market and we receive no help here. My other children stayed in Wau with my blind mother. They receive food there, but it wasn’t safe. When I get money, I want to bring my whole family here. I go to the forest every day to collect wild fruit. My children are always hungry and I barely have any of the sorghum left that we brought. I don’t feel safe going back to Wau or to my village. There’s nothing left. I’d rather starve than go back.”


Avoiding a ‘desperate’ situation  

Much of South Sudan’s population depends on food aid, but distributions can be affected by many factors, such as constrained access due to weather or conflict, funding gaps, or changes in the food security phases of specific areas.

“The situation can quickly become desperate,” said FAO spokesperson Lieke Visser, adding that it’s important to decrease dependence on food aid and increase stability so that people can find other sources of food or income.

John Pangech, Director General for Planning at the Ministry of Agriculture and an IPC co-chair, is distraught over his country’s situation.

“People are giving up,” he said. “Inflation has prices of food and water rise to amounts that no family can afford. People want a permanent ceasefire and clear move to stop the war. If the Addis Ababa [peace] talks don’t bring a solution, it will be serious.”


Share this article

Get the day’s top headlines in your inbox every morning

Starting at just $5 a month, you can become a member of The New Humanitarian and receive our premium newsletter, DAWNS Digest.

DAWNS Digest has been the trusted essential morning read for global aid and foreign policy professionals for more than 10 years.

Government, media, global governance organisations, NGOs, academics, and more subscribe to DAWNS to receive the day’s top global headlines of news and analysis in their inboxes every weekday morning.

It’s the perfect way to start your day.

Become a member of The New Humanitarian today and you’ll automatically be subscribed to DAWNS Digest – free of charge.

Become a member of The New Humanitarian

Support our journalism and become more involved in our community. Help us deliver informative, accessible, independent journalism that you can trust and provides accountability to the millions of people affected by crises worldwide.