5 of the worst humanitarian crises — and how we’re helping

September 27, 2019
Written by Olivia Giovetti

Many of the countries Concern works in are highly vulnerable to emergencies and shocks, often as a result of conflict and natural disasters. “Ranking” humanitarian crises is a tricky business, but here are 5 that we think should be on your radar.

At Concern, we go where we’re needed most. Many of these countries are highly vulnerable to emergencies and shocks, often as a result of conflict and natural disasters. These vulnerabilities are unfortunately likely to increase in coming years as the effects of climate change worsen and long-standing conflicts continue without resolution in sight.

“Ranking” humanitarian crises is a tricky business, but here are 5 that we think should be on your radar.

1. Yemen

As Concern Worldwide CEO Dominic MacSorley puts it: “Yemen is the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, with extreme levels of need created by conflict and severely limited access to humanitarian assistance. Basic services such as healthcare and sanitation have shut down, the economy is on the verge of collapse and people are suffering from severe levels of malnutrition.” 

The Yemeni Civil War has, according to a UN estimate made in February 2019, left an estimated 24 million people in need of assistance and protection. That’s nearly 80% of the country’s population. 20 million people are food-insecure, 19.7 million are unable to get adequate healthcare, 17.8 million lack access to safe water, and 3.3 million citizens are displaced. In 2018, this led to a cholera outbreak in the country that affected hundreds of thousands of Yemenis, especially children.

“Yemen is the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, with extreme levels of need created by conflict and severely limited access to humanitarian assistance.” — Dominic MacSorley, Concern Worldwide CEO

How did it get so bad? 

While violence is historically common in Yemen, it escalated sharply in March 2015 between the Yemeni government and Houthi movement. Massive unemployment, food insecurity, attacks against civilians, and political infighting ultimately led to a civil war. And that’s just the beginning. 

The destabilizing effects of conflict in Yemen makes it that much harder to get humanitarian aid into the country. It also destroyed the country’s infrastructure, which caused further food and fuel shortages and compromised access to clean water and sanitation. Taken together, these elements have created a dire situation.

How we’re helping

At the moment, Concern doesn’t have a formal program in Yemen. However, in response to the growing needs in the country, we recently partnered with fellow NGO ACTED (Agency for Technical Cooperation and Development) to design a program that focused on providing water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) services, along with some economic support to help with immediate needs. Between 2017 and 2018, we worked to improve access to clean water for 202,720 by fixing 11 water points in Sa’ada and Hudayah. We also trained local committees to manage these water points moving forward.

Syrian refugee Tarek, 25, sits on a mattress next to his wife Donia, 19, holding their daughter

Syrian refugee Tarek, 25, sits on a mattress next to his wife Donia, 19, holding their daughter Sarah, 2 months, in Tarek’s parents’ apartment in the north of Lebanon. Photo: Dalia Khamissy

2. Syria

What began as a response to peaceful protest in Syria in 2011 quickly became a ferocious conflict that has killed more than half a million people, created an exodus of over 6.5 million refugees (almost half of whom are children), and displaced millions more within the country. In 2018 alone, 1,106 children were killed in the fighting – the highest ever number of children killed in a single year since the start of the war.

As of December 2018, 11.7 million people were in need of humanitarian aid, 5 million of whom are children. 13.2 million Syrians need health assistance, and 2.1 million Syrian children are currently out of school. With 83% of the population living below the poverty line, Syria also has high rates for food insecurity (33%) and needs around water and sanitation assistance (6.2 million). 

How did it get so bad? 

Much like Yemen, Syria has spent much of the last century in and out of conflict. The latest influx began during the country’s own Arab Spring protests in 2011, which gave way to an ongoing civil war.

Regardless of allegiance, so much violence means that civilians are paying the ultimate price, either with their lives or by abandoning their homes for life in exile. 

Beyond a conflict between the government and its opposition, this war has come to involve multiple militant factions. The involvement of numerous other  nations has further complicated the situation.

Regardless of allegiance, so much violence means that civilians are paying the ultimate price, either with their lives or by abandoning their homes for life in exile. 

How we’re helping

Concern has been responding in Syria since 2013, and also has programs active in Lebanon and Turkey. For internally-displaced Syrians, we continue a rapid emergency response with a two-day assessment/distribution turnaround for food assistance, shelter, and other vital assets. Restricted cash vouchers give locals greater dignity and freedom of choice for their purchases, while also supporting struggling local markets. 

In and outside of Syria, we also are heavily focused on supporting children, many of whom suffer from exposure to violence and/or multiple displacements. Child-friendly spaces are aimed to give kids the psychosocial support they need, a safe environment to be children, and a continuing education. For Syrian refugees living in Lebanon and Turkey, we’ve worked to provide basic shelter and water infrastructure, emergency response to severe storms in Lebanon, and livelihood programs that benefit both refugees and their host communities.  

3. Democratic Republic of Congo

The Democratic Republic of Congo is in the grips of an under-reported, decades-long humanitarian crisis that is the product of years of chronic ethnic conflict, political instability, and neglect by its own leaders and the international community. As of December 2018, 12.8 million Congolese were in need of humanitarian assistance, including 5.6 million children. The DRC is also currently the site of the second-deadliest Ebola outbreak in history, with over 2,000 deaths reported as of September 2019. 

Recently trained care providers at the Nyamilima workshop, DRC (April 2019)

Recently trained Ebola care providers at the Nyamilima workshop, DRC (April 2019)

How did it get so bad? 

Like Syria and Yemen, the Democratic Republic of Congo has seen centuries of oppression, neglect, and chronic violence. Prior to the 19th Century, 5 million Congolese were captured and sent to the Americas as slaves. At the end of the 19th Century, Belgium’s King Leopold II then launched a 90-year colonial period marked by forced labor, exploitation of natural resources, disease, and mass killings. This essentially set the DRC up for failure in 1960 when it gained independence from Belgium. 

Long-term military dictator, President Mobutu, was deposed in the First Congo War in 1997, with the Second Congo War lasting from 1998 to 2003. Even with peace declared, violence has not gone away. Outbreaks of armed conflict have been triggered by land, natural resources, and ethnic disputes. Armed groups will drive villagers out of their homes and take over their land — an average of 5,500 people abandoning their homes every day in 2017. 

An average of 5,500 Congolese abandoned their homes due to conflict every day in 2017. 

How we’re helping

Concern has worked in the Democratic Republic of Congo for 25 years, back when it was still known as Zaire. Since the late 1990s, we’ve focused much of our efforts on long-term development, building schools and health centers, training teachers and health volunteers, and supporting agriculture and livelihood projects. We’ve also led efforts to roll out new water and sanitation infrastructures, especially in provinces that have struggled to recover from 2 civil wars. 

Since August 1, 2018, we’ve also been working to help contain the spread of the Ebola virus in the east of the country. This current epidemic is the country’s tenth, and history’s second-largest. 

4. South Sudan

Violence has forced people to flee their homes and plunged South Sudan into chaos and famine. As of March 2019, 7.2 million South Sudanese were in need of humanitarian assistance, including 4.4 million children. Over 63% of the country’s population faces food insecurity and hunger. Finally, there are 1.8 million internally displaced South Sudanese, and 2.3 million living in neighboring countries as refugees. 

How did it get so bad? 

South Sudan has experienced almost nothing but turbulence since gaining its independence in 2011. After President Salva Kiir Mayardit fired his entire cabinet in 2013 (including Vice President Riek Machar), violence erupted in the capital of Juba. Soldiers loyal to Machar were pitted against government forces. There have been various agreements in an effort to find a peaceful solution, the most recent of which was in late 2018. 

South Sudan has extensive oil fields that form the basis of its economy. But since the country is landlocked, it runs almost all of its pipelines through Sudan to get oil to port. A 2012 dispute with Sudan led to a temporary suspension of production that still continues to leave the economy fragile. Rising debts mean that as much as 85% of the South Sudanese workforce go unpaid for their labor, leaving them unable to afford the country’s (mostly) imported food with ballooning inflation prices. 

How we’re helping

50 years of experience has taught us that one of the most effective ways to get work done — especially in conflict-affected countries — is to work through local partners. Our focus in South Sudan with these partners is on nutrition, livelihoods, and water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) programs.  

We provide therapeutic nutrition services in the former states of Central Equatoria, Unity, and Northern Bahr el Ghazal. Mobile sites can reach even remote communities, where we’ve implemented our Community-based Management of Acute Malnutrition programs. We also support 49 health facilities to deliver life-saving interventions around malaria, pneumonia, and diarrhea. 

A Concern mobile nutrition clinic in South Sudan

14 month old Anger Adim is one of twins admitted to an outpatient therapeutic program (OTP) run by Concern in Aweil North, South Sudan. Pictured here with Monica Mawien of the community nutrition team. Photo: Kieran McConville

To increase resilience, we work with communities in former Northern Bahr el Ghazal to build a sustainable supply of agriculture and livestock so that resources and livelihoods can both increase. South Sudan is vulnerable to the impacts of climate change and so we focus on promoting climate-smart agriculture such as conservation agriculture, the use of fast-maturing crop varieties, and natural resource management to cope with prolonged dry periods.

Concern also works in the Protection of Civilian site in Bentiu with WASH programming to provide access to safe water, proper sanitation, and hygiene promotion services.

5. Horn of Africa

Ongoing drought in the Horn of Africa (which includes Ethiopia and Somalia) has left, as of June 2019, 11.7 million people severely insecure and over 785,000 children severely malnourished across Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya, and Uganda. The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA) expects these numbers to rise due to consecutive “poor” seasons that have destroyed livelihoods. 5.9 million people are internally displaced, 1.8 million of whom have been displaced due to drought. The crisis has also created 2.7 million refugees. 

How did it get so bad? 

While conflict does play a part in many of the countries involved in this crisis (especially, in recent years, Somalia), the greater issue that has exacerbated the Horn of Africa is weather. Year over year, rains continue to fall short of expectations with 2019 being one of the driest rainy seasons on record in over 35 years. In Ethiopia, the 2019 drought comes on top of prolonged drought in 2016 and 2017 — one that many communities are still struggling to recover from. With little water for crops and herds, livelihoods and food security are the next dominoes to fall. 

UN Humanitarian Chief Mark Lowcock said in June, 2019: “We need to move to a system where we act much earlier on the warning signs of drought and hunger so that we can cut response times and costs and reduce deaths and human suffering.” 

How we’re helping

We’ve spent 46 years in Ethiopia and are familiar with its weather-related shocks — the effects of which impact over 80% of the rural population. Our country programs have impacted 573,000 people directly and over 1.8 million people indirectly in six regions of the country and in the capital city of Addis Ababa. In 2017, we launched a 5-year integrated program targeting over 52,000 people to help more than 5,00 of the poorest households to “graduate” from poverty. We also scaled up our humanitarian response to being operational in 34 of the most affected districts across 6 different regions in 2018, helping with emergency nutrition services while also ensuring access to potable water, sanitation, and non-food items such as shelter and cooking equipment. 

Our emergency team in Somalia (where we’ve worked for 33 years) provides a multi-sector response to drought, flood and displacement-affected households across the country. A key pillar of our response is unconditional cash transfers delivered through mobile phones, which enable families to quickly receive money to buy what they most need from local markets to meet basic needs such as food and healthcare. Much of our programming is also focused on finding durable solutions for communities that have been affected by displacement, often multiple times. 

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