What the “Hunger Season” Means for Farmers Fighting Famine

World Food Program USA
June 29, 2017
Photo: WFP/Abeer Etefa

When a farming family’s crop stockpiles run out, the waiting begins.

In northeast Nigeria, where millions of people have fled the violence of Boko Haram, the so-called “hunger season” begins next week.

Across agricultural communities around the world, the hunger season is the time of year between planting and harvest when food runs out. It can last for months, and it’s a particularly challenging time for subsistence farmers and their families, who solely rely on what they grow.

Also known as the lean season, the hunger season brings with it difficult choices. Fathers find odd jobs to buy food at high prices given demand; mothers try to stretch whatever food they can scrounge to make it last; or families leave their homes altogether to find food. Children eat a less varied diet, becoming more vulnerable to sickness and malnutrition. Death rates spike for those children worse off.

The hunger season can arrive earlier in countries experiencing conflict and poor harvests. For example, two years of civil war and violence has devastated Yemen’s already limited food production. Last year farmers in Yemen experienced a below-average harvest. As a result, this year’s hunger season began in April instead of July.

Making matters worse, the early arrival of Yemen’s hunger season coincided with a funding shortage that forced the World Food Programme (WFP) to reduce emergency support for children at risk of acute malnutrition — despite Yemen being one of four countries on the brink of famine.

“If we act now, many lives could be saved in Yemen,” said Muhannad Hadi, WFP Regional Director for the Middle East, North Africa, Central Asia and East Europe.

In South Sudan, the hunger season arrived in May. Because of the ongoing conflict, farms have been abandoned and left to waste. At the same time, the start of the rainy season and widespread flooding means delivering food assistance by road is now impossible in many places. During the rainy season, 60 percent of the country’s roads are impassable.

Despite these challenges, organizations like WFP have helped contain the famine that was declared in two counties in South Sudan earlier this year. Yet overall humanitarian need has increased across the country; half of the population is experiencing extreme food insecurity.

“The increase in food insecurity has been driven by armed conflict, below-average harvests and soaring food prices as well as the effects of the annual lean season,” said the Food and Agriculture Organization, UNICEF and WFP in a joint press statement last week.

In nations experiencing drought like Somalia, poor harvests from previous years have compounded extreme levels of hunger. The hunger and rainy seasons in Somalia began in May and run through June. After three consecutive seasons of poor rainfall, the latest crisis in Somalia threatens to affect a much larger percentage of the population than the famine that was declared in Somalia in 2011.

Thanks to the support of people like you, WFP is working with other relief partners on the ground to save lives in Northeast Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan and Yemen. But time is running out.