The world has got only four months to save millions of people in Yemen and Somalia from starvation, the International Committee of the Red Cross says. The ICRC's Ewan Watson tells DW it is time to ring the alarm bell.
DW: Mr Watson, how did the ICRC come to this conclusion?
Ewan Watson: We [the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement] are actually on the ground and we have been following the way this crisis has evolved. You have got to remember that for all four countries we are talking about here, Yemen, South Sudan, Somalia and Nigeria, the root cause of this crisis is conflict, conflict that has been going on for years and that has been destroying livelihoods. People cannot farm their fields, people are displaced numerous times, infrastructure like hospitals is destroyed or damaged. So there are a lot of factors that play a role here and one of them is the risk of famine that we have seen. What we know, if you take a country like Yemen, is that the country is really reliant on the importation of goods. Ninety percent of its food and other goods were imported even before the conflict took place. So of course now, with the blockage of goods coming in, there is a real crisis and that needs to be tackled urgently. Our assessment on the ground of both countries is that we have got a very short window to actually tackle this situation. And we are saying that the root is not something that has to do with climate, it has to do with conflict. The international community needs to mobilize now and take this very seriously and tackle this issue.
What needs to be done urgently now to avoid this mass starvation that you have mentioned in those countries?
A couple of things need to be done. One is that donors and governments need to continue funding aid organizations. That is, in the short and immediate term, how we are going to stop people from dying of famine and help them if they are wounded or sick, which is of course a consequence of not eating enough. So all the knock-on effects there need to be tackled. In the short term that means that aid organizations like the Red Cross can actually have enough money to do the job. We have certainly scaled up and what we are calling for is for others to scale up too and really mobilize around this. So one thing is basically just more aid. However, there is another thing here and that is: what happens in a conflict if the norms of warfare aren't respected, if for example the warring parties attack hospitals or attack civilians? That causes immense suffering and that is at the root of this crisis today. So what we are actually asking for is for state and warring parties to do more to abide by the rules of war. There are simple rules that were made for fighters, they were made by fighters and they have to be respected. That means the civilian population will have access to aid and will not be attacked during warfare. So the two main things we are calling for are more aid and more efforts to respect the rule of law.
Let's say you get the money to feed these millions of people who urgently need it. How do you go about doing that in countries that are plagued by conflict?
It's partly because we, along with Red Crescent Societies, Red Cross Societies, are on the ground. We have a particular dialog with warring parties. Part of our role is to speak to warring parties and make sure that we can access the most vulnerable. And so we are present in Somalia, in areas controlled by al-Shabab. We are in South Sudan in both opposition and government held areas. So we are able to access some of the places where basically other organizations are not. And that is one of the ways that we obviously deliver aid. But in a place like South Sudan there is very limited infrastructure. So in fact what we found ourselves doing is having to drop aid into different locations in Unity and in Jonglei state, for example, because there is no other way to actually get to these places on the roads. So even with the dialog that we have with warring parties we find that we have to take creative ways to actually reach the people with the aid that is so urgently needed.
Are donors responding to your pleas and appeals?
Donors are building up a sense of urgency to this and we have seen some of them coming forward, so we are cautiously optimistic that donors will respond. But it is really important for that alarm bell to be rung, because we are talking about a short window to prevent famine here. We have got three or four months before us and the alarm bell has to be rung. It is really about understanding that this is not business as usual, this is not just another crisis that an aid organization is talking about. This is four countries with twenty million people faced with the threat of famine. Now that is huge and everything must be done that can possibly be done to prevent that. So, yes, I think donors are getting the message but more aid is still needed. In a place like Yemen the needs are huge and warring parties have to play a role. They have to allow aid to get in; they have to not block the importation of goods. They have to try and respect things like the sanctity of hospitals. They cannot attack the wounded and medical workers trying to do their job in hospitals.
Ewan Watson is Head of Public Relations of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), which is operating in six African countries.
Interview: Chrispin Mwakideu