Last month, a United Nations report on hunger described a catastrophic situation in Gaza, where more than ninety per cent of the population has been facing “acute food insecurity,” and where “virtually all households are skipping meals every day.” Much of Gaza is at risk of famine in the next several months. Parents have been going without food to insure that their kids have at least something to eat; where food is available, moreover, prices have skyrocketed, making it inaccessible even for middle-class families. The report noted, “This is the highest share of people facing high levels of acute food insecurity” ever recorded “for any given area or country.” I recently spoke by phone with Arif Husain, the chief economist at the United Nations World Food Program, which was one of the partner organizations that compiled the report. The W.F.P. also collects data on hunger around the world and delivers food to needy people. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed what the people of Gaza are currently facing, the reasons many cannot access food, and why this crisis is so unprecedented.
Could you describe the food-access situation in Gaza right now?
The bottom line is that, in Gaza, pretty much everybody is hungry at the moment. In the food-security-analysis business, we do something called I.P.C., or Integrated Phase Classification. This is an exercise that has about twenty-three partners, including nineteen U.N. agencies and international N.G.O.s and about four donors. This group analyzes the food-security situation. And, on the basis of that, it presents a report, which is independent. It is not one agency or one entity. There’s a consensus-based analysis. This exercise is done in between forty and fifty countries worldwide that may have a food-security issue, whether it is because of conflict or climate or anything else. What an I.P.C. does in any given location is put people in five different classifications. I.P.C. Phase 1 is that everything is fine; I.P.C. Phase 2 is that people are stressed in terms of their food-security situation; I.P.C. Phase 3 is that people are, in fact, in a food-security crisis; I.P.C. Phase 4 is that people are in food-security emergencies; and the last phase is called the famine, or catastrophe, phase. Now, the same analysis was done for Gaza, which came out in December, and, according to that, pretty much the entire population of 2.2 million people is in a food-security crisis or a worse situation.
Can you describe the difference between crisis, emergency, and famine?
It is a scale that looks at people’s food security and consumption, how they’re able to access food, and what type of coping strategies they use. It also looks at other indicators, including socioeconomic indicators. We ask, what is the situation now, and, also, what would you expect in the next, let’s say, few months? Classification on those three thresholds, as the severity increases, is different: crisis; then, if it’s worse than crisis, it turns into emergency; and then, if it’s worse than emergency, it turns into famine or catastrophe.
But let me give you the criteria for famine: It’s essentially that, in any given place in the geographic unit, twenty per cent of the population must be starving—that’s criteria No. 1. Criteria No. 2 is that thirty per cent of the children must be severely malnourished or wasted. And then the third criteria is that the mortality rate, the death rate, should be double the average, meaning, for adults, from one per ten thousand a day to two per ten thousand a day. And, for children, from two per ten thousand a day to four per ten thousand a day. When these three conditions come together in a single place, it’s a famine.
So the bottom line is that you hope not to say, “O.K., let’s act because there is a famine.” You need to act to avoid a famine, right? Because if you say, “O.K., let’s act when there is a famine,” that means you’re saying people have already died, children are already wasted, people are already starving. That’s not the point. The point is that we should never let a population reach that state.
Now, in the case of Gaza, a quarter of the population is already in that state, meaning they’re in catastrophic levels of hunger. We don’t call it a full famine. Why? Because they haven’t met the other two conditions, meaning it’s very hard to say whether thirty per cent of the children over there are already wasted or whether their death rate has doubled. Why? Because their health systems are broken. But what the report says is that, if what is happening continues or worsens, pretty soon—within the next six months—we will have a full-fledged famine.
How does Gaza seem similar to other conflict zones, and how does it seem different?
I’ve been doing this for the past two decades, and I’ve been to all kinds of conflicts and all kinds of crises. And, for me, this is unprecedented because of, one, the magnitude, the scale, the entire population of a particular place; second, the severity; and, third, the speed at which this is happening, at which this has unfolded, is unprecedented. In my life, I’ve never seen anything like this in terms of severity, in terms of scale, and then in terms of speed.
There have been reports that in some places in Gaza food has become really expensive. Can you talk about what we’re seeing in Gaza specifically?
Access comes in two types: one is physical access to food, and the other is economic access to food—food has to come, and supply chains need to work. And then, if the food is there, is it affordable? It’s always first and foremost about whether a population or community is able to access food. The same story is applicable in Gaza. What is happening in Gaza is that it’s reliant on imports of food and other essential commodities, right? That was the case before the war, and it is the case now.
One thing that must happen is: food needs to come in regularly through different border crossings. But, when I say food needs to come in, other essential commodities, like water, like medicine, like fuel—all of these things need to come in, and they need to come in adequate amounts. The second thing is that people need to have access to that food, whether it is through humanitarian aid or commercial channels. People need to be able to secure it. This is why, for us, what’s critically important is not only the ability to actually bring in these commodities but also the ability to actually take it to the people, wherever they are. It’s not good enough to say, “Here’s the food, and it is in the country.” If we cannot reach the people where they are to provide that assistance, it’s not going to work. And this is why people keep talking about having a humanitarian ceasefire, which would allow us not only to bring in food and other essential commodities but also to actually distribute them in a safe way. If you have food coming in but you cannot distribute it, it’s as good as food not coming in.