Impending catastrophe leads calls to help fight famine

Currently, 928 million people around the world are struggling to find food. Of that number, 49 million people across 46 countries are on the brink of famine. Huge numbers, shocking numbers, to be honest, quite unbelievable numbers. Certainly bigger and more frightening than I’ve seen in over 20 years working in the humanitarian sector. 

Last month I travelled to Ethiopia in the Horn of Africa and spent time in northern Ethiopia, right up near the border of Tigray, visiting an IDP (Internally Displaced Persons) camp filled with thousands of people – families, the elderly, children. These people are facing an impending hunger crisis – many are already receiving well less than the required calories per day or surviving purely on wheat alone. People living in these camps have no money, no opportunity to grow produce and there is little prospect of returning to their homes anytime soon.

This is just one camp with 21,000 people, but the scarcity of food and water is common across the Horn of Africa. With the staff of our partner, Caritas Ethiopia, we witnessed firsthand the life-giving work that they are doing in these IDP camps.

Then we travelled to the southern part of Ethiopia and spent time visiting settlements that are in desperate need of help. They are 18km off the road, the signs for other NGOs have long since disappeared in this part of Ethiopia – it is simply too far and too hard to work here.

And yet out of the trees come nearly 100 people – heads of the households. The men on one side and women on the other, they have been waiting for us to arrive. Waiting to speak their truth. The weight of their truth is evident in their bodies long before they speak. Their crop (provided by a Caritas relief package) has unfortunately mostly failed. The rains have not come for the fifth year in a row, and they are running out of options. They have had to start killing their animals as they have no food to feed them.

We listen to their stories and one woman takes me to her hut. She has just returned from the overnight walk to get water. She doesn’t know how long it took but she left as the sun began to get low (around 6pm) and had just returned (around 4pm the following day). That’s nearly 22 hours just to collect water. During that time her small children were inside her hut alone, but she had no choice – they need water to survive.

These are the people behind the statistics. The stories, the families, the faces. They are real and this crisis is real.  I bear witness to these strong, resilient people and carry forth the privilege to share their stories, because if we don’t act now, the ramifications will be immense. Right now, we’re facing an unprecedented global hunger crisis. The triple threats of conflict, COVID and climate have created the perfect storm. The war in Ukraine is having serious impacts on some of the most vulnerable countries that depend heavily on grain, fuel and fertiliser imports from Russia or Ukraine, like Yemen, Somalia, Ethiopia and Sudan.

Here in Australia, we are worried about the food and fuel prices rising, and we should be. But imagine a small bottle of vegetable oil costing four times as much today as it did two years ago. Imagine waiting literally for days in a queue to get petrol that is also several times the price it used to be. Imagine watching another rainy season pass you by, when you can’t afford to buy the seeds to plant next year’s harvest, so you know that this life-threatening hunger will not end anytime soon.

We are now facing a very real, and very serious and far-reaching hunger crisis. We are facing a humanitarian crisis with a potentially catastrophic death toll.

Caritas Australia is as a member of Help Fight Famine, a coalition of community and humanitarian organisations united in our call for urgent action from the Australian Government to do our part in responding to the global hunger crisis with a $150 million hunger aid package. We must act and we must act now to avert disaster.

Caritas Australia is also supporting our partners in Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya, Eritrea and South Sudan to bring vital aid to the vulnerable, including food distributions, clean drinking water and support for sanitation, cash transfers and seeds and household items for families impacted by displacement. 

Even though it was truly heartbreaking for us to witness the struggle that the people of Ethiopia are currently facing, seeing the work of our partners, Caritas Ethiopia, as well as the determination of the Catholic Church in accessing the most marginalised and the poorest of the poor, was indeed a glimmer of hope. It was reassuring to see that they are there to support people during the darkest of times.   

- Kirsty Robertson, Caritas Australia's CEO. 

This article was first published in Eureka Street.