UN says Gaza famine imminent in "unprecedented" crisis: "The speed is terrifying"

Gaza – Half of Gazans are experiencing "catastrophic" hunger, with famine projected to hit the north of the territory by May unless there is urgent intervention, a United Nations-backed food security assessment warned Monday.

Displaced people gathered to receive food at a government school in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip last month, amid the ongoing war between Israel and the militant group Hamas.
Displaced people gathered to receive food at a government school in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip last month, amid the ongoing war between Israel and the militant group Hamas.  © MOHAMMED ABED / AFP

"People in Gaza are starving to death right now. The speed at which this man-made hunger and malnutrition crisis has ripped through Gaza is terrifying," said Cindy McCain, head of the UN's World Food Programme (WFP).

The Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) partnership on Monday estimated that 1.1 million people – half the population of Gaza, on UN estimates – were facing catastrophic conditions.

"To have 50 percent of an entire population in catastrophic, near-famine levels, is unprecedented," Beth Bechdol, deputy director general of the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), told AFP.

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The WFP confirmed this was the "highest number of people ever recorded as facing catastrophic hunger" under the IPC system, originally developed in 2004.

The situation is particularly dire in the north of the besieged Palestinian territory, where the UN says there are about 300,000 people, with aid agencies reporting huge difficulties in gaining access.

"Famine is imminent in the northern governorates and projected to occur anytime between mid-March and May 2024," said the IPC, made up of UN agencies, NGOs and regional bodies.

Martin Griffiths, the UN's humanitarian chief, said there was "no time to lose", calling for Israel to allow unfettered access for aid.

"The international community should hang its head in shame for failing to stop this," he said.

A famine has only been officially classified twice before, in Somalia in 2011 and in South Sudan in 2017, according to the New York Times.

Is there a famine in Gaza?

The UN has warned for weeks of the risk of famine in Gaza.
The UN has warned for weeks of the risk of famine in Gaza.  © SAID KHATIB / AFP

The bloodiest-ever Gaza war broke out after Hamas launched an unprecedented attack on Israel on October 7, to which Israel responded with a relentless bombing campaign and ground offensive in the Palestinian territory.

The UN has warned for weeks of the risk of famine in Gaza.

The IPC said Monday that while the technical criteria for famine had not yet been met, "all evidence points towards a major acceleration of deaths and malnutrition".

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"Waiting for a retrospective famine classification before acting is indefensible," it said.

"Hunger is a slow and painful death," said Hiba Tibi, country director for the CARE international aid group, who reported aid workers seeing children "who can barely talk and walk" for lack of food.

A famine is declared when 20 percent of households face an extreme food shortage – which is the case in Gaza, the UN says.

Other criteria are that one in three children are acutely malnourished, and that at least two in every 10,000 people die every day of starvation or malnutrition.

According to the WFP, "one in three children below the age of two is now acutely malnourished, or 'wasted'", meaning they are dangerously thin.

Arif Husain, WFP's chief economist, warned that meeting the final criteria for declaring a famine – the mortality rate – would "happen any time from now until the end of May".

Bechdol, of the FAO, said that challenges of data collection and analysis meant it was "possible that famine is already occurring in the north".

Gazans are "turning to alternative sources" for food, including animal feed and "inedible items, purely out of desperation," she told AFP.

Donors have turned to deliveries by air or sea, but air and sea missions are not viable alternatives to land deliveries, UN agencies say.

Cover photo: MOHAMMED ABED / AFP

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