Floods cut off communities in South Sudan’s Unity state

By Denis Dumo

JUBA (Reuters) – Severe flooding has hit South Sudan’s northern state of Unity, cutting off communities from accessing supplies of food and other vital commodities, a state official said on Friday.

More than 700,000 people have been affected by the worst flooding in the country for nearly 60 years, the U.N. refugee agency UNHCR said in October, blaming climate change.

In Unity, which borders Sudan, the floods have left a trail of food shortages, caused malnutrition in children and increased the spread of diseases such as malaria, said Lam Tungwar Kueigwong, the state’s minister of land, housing and public utilities.

Oil from the fields in the region had contaminated the water, he said, leading to the death of domestic animals.

The suffering caused by the floods, including food shortages and illnesses, is putting pressure on the health facilities, said international charity Médecins Sans Frontières, which operates in the area.

“We are extremely concerned about malnutrition, with severe acute malnutrition levels two times the WHO threshold, and the number of children admitted to our hospital with severe malnutrition doubling since the start of the floods,” MSF said.

For Nyatuak Koang, a mother of three boys and two girls, that concern is all too real for her after the floods forced her to move twice.

“We don’t have anywhere to sleep, we don’t have any mosquito nets and we don’t have material to cover our house,” she said.

Nearly a decade after South Sudan gained independence following a war, it faces the threat of conflict, climate change and COVID-19, the outgoing head of the U.N. mission in the country said in March.

Nearly all the population depends on international food aid, and most basic services such as health and education are provided by the United Nations agencies and aid groups.

(Writing by Duncan Miriri; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Ethiopian families fleeing fighting describe hunger, rape in Amhara

By Giulia Paravicini, Dawit Endeshaw and Maggie Fick

DESSIE, Ethiopia (Reuters) – The pictures on her phone are all that Ethiopian mother Habtam Akele has left of her three-year-old daughter Saba. The girl died of malnutrition last month before the family was able to flee south, deeper into Ethiopia’s Amhara region.

“They (doctors) told me she has been severely affected by malnutrition and they cannot help. Then they gave me some syrup and tablets. She passed away exactly a week later,” Habtam told Reuters earlier this month, clutching her surviving nine-month-old baby.

Habtam is among an influx of thousands of Amhara families fleeing to the town of Dessie from fighting further north. Officials warn the already overcrowded makeshift camps, where displaced people sleep in rows in school classrooms, will fill further after renewed clashes.

Conflict erupted between the ruling party of the rebellious northern region of Tigray – the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF) – and the Ethiopian central government last November.

In July, the TPLF pushed into the neighboring region of Amhara, whose forces had fought alongside the military against the Tigrayans, as well as into the region of Afar.

The Tigrayan advance forced around 250,000 people to flee their homes in Amhara, the U.N. Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said in September.

On Monday, the TPLF said the Ethiopian military had launched an offensive to try to dislodge the Tigrayan fighters from Amhara, following a barrage of air strikes reported last week.

The military and government have not answered calls seeking information on the offensive, but a post on the military’s official Facebook page said “they (the TPLF) have opened war on all fronts” and said the military was inflicting heavy casualties.

Diplomats are worried that renewed fighting will further destabilize Ethiopia, a nation of 109 million people, and deepen hunger in Tigray and the surrounding regions.

Habtam said there was little food in the areas under Tigrayan control and that Tigrayan forces took scarce medicines from local pharmacies.

Getachew Reda, the spokesman for the TPLF, told Reuters that Tigrayan forces had not looted pharmacies that supplied local populations and had set up a generator to alleviate water shortages in Habtam’s area.

Reuters had no way of independently verifying Habtam’s account since her home, to the north in Kobo, is off-limits to journalists due to fighting and phone connections to the area are down.

ARMED MAN

The United Nations has said that the Ethiopian government is only letting a trickle of food trucks and no medicines or fuel into Tigray despite estimates that hundreds of thousands of people are in famine conditions there – a charge the government denies. Hospitals there have run out of crucial medicines.

Both sides accuse each other of committing atrocities. Reuters has previously documented gang-rapes and mass killings of civilians in Tigray, and some Amhara residents told Reuters that Tigrayans were also committing abuses in territory they control. Both sides have denied the allegations.

Another woman at the camps told Reuters that she had been raped by an armed man speaking Tigrinya, the language of Tigray, in an area of Amhara under Tigrayan control. Saada, 28, told Reuters she had been attacked in her house in Mersa, 80 km north of Dessie, by the armed man in plain clothes. She did not recall the exact date but said it was around the end of August.

“He said to me ‘We left our houses both to kill and to die. I am from the jungle so, I have all the right to do whatever I want. I can even kill you’ and he raised his gun to me and threatened to kill me,” she said. “Then he raped me.”

She provided a card showing she had visited Dessie Comprehensive Specialized Hospital for treatment. She asked Reuters not to use her full name to protect her from reprisals.

Leul Mesfin, the medical director of Dessie hospital declined to answer questions about civilian injuries or rapes, or individual cases, because he said he did not trust foreign journalists.

When asked about the rape, Getachew of the TPLF said any reported incident would be investigated and that the actions of one man should not implicate Tigrayan forces in general.

“I can’t vouch for each and every off-breed idiot who masquerades as a fighter,” he said. “There are millions of (men with) guns there.”

(Maggie Fick reported from Nairobi; Editing by Katharine Houreld and Alison Williams)

COVID-19 crisis has led to food crisis, says Italy’s Draghi

By Maytaal Angel

LONDON (Reuters) -The world must ensure access to food supplies as forcefully as it moved to ensure access to vaccines, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi said at the opening of the United Nations Food Systems Pre-Summit in Rome.

“The health crisis (COVID-19) has led to a food crisis,” he said, citing data showing malnutrition in all its forms has become the leading cause of ill health and death in the world.

The U.N.’s first ever Food Systems Summit will take place in September, with the aim of delivering progress on the body’s 2030 sustainable development goals (SDGs).

According to the latest U.N. data, the world’s food system, which involves cutting down forests to plant crops, is responsible for a third of global greenhouse gas emissions, making it a leading cause of climate change.

“We are off track to achieve the SDGs,” said U.N. Secretary General António Guterres, who first announced his plan to convene the Food Systems Summit in October 2019, before COVID-19 dramatically slowed progress towards SDGs like zero hunger.

After remaining virtually unchanged for five years, world hunger and malnutrition rose last year by around 118 million people to 768 million, with most of the increase likely due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a major U.N. report.

On internationally traded markets, world food prices were up 33.9% year-on-year in June, according to the U.N food agency’s price index, which measures a basket of cereals, oilseeds, dairy products, meat and sugar.

There is increased diplomatic momentum to tackle hunger, malnutrition and the climate crisis this year with summits like the current one, but the challenge is huge.

Guterres said the pre-summit will assess progress towards achieving the SDGs by transforming global food systems, which, he noted, are also responsible for 80% of the world’s biodiversity loss.

(Reporting by Maytaal Angel; Editing by Giles Elgood and Steve Orlofsky)

World hunger, malnutrition soared last year mostly due to COVID-19 – U.N. agencies

By Maytaal Angel

LONDON (Reuters) – World hunger and malnutrition levels worsened dramatically last year, with most of the increase likely due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a multi-agency United Nations (U.N.) report published on Monday.

After remaining virtually unchanged for five years, the number of undernourished people rose to around 768 million last year – equivalent to 10% of the world’s population and an increase of around 118 million versus 2019, the report said.

Authored by U.N. agencies including the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the World Food Program (WFP) and the World Health Organization (WHO), the report is the first comprehensive assessment of food insecurity and nutrition since the pandemic emerged.

“Unfortunately, the pandemic continues to expose weaknesses in our food systems, which threaten lives and livelihoods. No region of the world has been spared,” the U.N. agencies said in a joint statement.

The 2021 edition of “The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World” estimated that on current trends, the U.N. sustainable development goal of zero hunger by 2030 will be missed by a margin of nearly 660 million people.

That number is 30 million higher than in a scenario where the pandemic had not occurred.

“Our worst fears are coming true. Reversing such high levels of chronic hunger will take years if not decades,” said WFP chief economist Arif Husain.

There is increased diplomatic momentum this year to tackle hunger and malnutrition with upcoming summits like the U.N. Food Systems Summit and the Nutrition for Growth Summit. But the report stressed the challenge was huge.

The number of people unable to access adequate food year-round rose by 320 million to 2.37 billion last year – a rise in one year equal to the preceding five years combined.

Of the 768 million undernourished people, 418 million were in Asia, 282 million in Africa and 60 million in Latin America and the Caribbean. In Africa though, 21% of people are undernourished, more than double that of any other region.

After declining for several decades, food insecurity has been on the rise since the mid-2010s, especially in countries affected by conflict, climate extremes, economic downturns, or battling high inequality.

The increase last year however was equal to that of the previous five years combined.

(Reporting by Maytaal Angel; Editing by Hugh Lawson)

$400 for a plate of rice and beans? U.N. counts cost of ‘man-made’ famines

By Michelle Nichols

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Nearly 30 years ago a malnourished two-year-old girl died in front of U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield at a refugee camp in northern Uganda. Two days ago U.N. food chief David Beasley met a starving five-month-old girl at a hospital in Yemen – she died on Thursday.

“What’s the difference today?” Thomas-Greenfield said. “Today we should have better information … We can save lives if we know where to go and if we put the funding toward it.”

Thomas-Greenfield and Beasley both recounted these stories during a U.N. Security Council meeting on food security, where U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres warned that more than 30 million people in over three dozen countries are “just one step away from a declaration of famine.”

“Famine and hunger are no longer about lack of food. They are now largely man-made – and I use the term deliberately. They are concentrated in countries affected by large-scale, protracted conflict,” Guterres told the 15-member body.

He announced the creation of a high-level U.N. task force on preventing famine led by U.N. aid chief Mark Lowcock.

“Parts of Yemen, South Sudan and Burkina Faso are in the grip of famine or conditions akin to famine,” Guterres said. “The Democratic Republic of the Congo experienced the world’s largest food crisis last year, with nearly 21.8 million people facing acute hunger between July and December.”

Guterres, Beasley and Thomas-Greenfield also raised particular concern about food shortages in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region, where Ethiopian government troops began an offensive against Tigray’s former ruling party after regional forces attacked federal army bases in the region in November.

“Food stocks are depleted. Acute malnutrition is rising. The ongoing violence has prevented humanitarians from helping desperately hungry people,” Thomas-Greenfield said.

In war-torn South Sudan, Guterres said 60% of people are increasingly hungry: “Food prices are so high that just one plate of rice and beans costs more than 180% of the average daily salary – the equivalent of about $400 here in New York.”

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols; Editing by Daniel Wallis)

Yemenis reel from poverty, hunger as U.N. pleads for funds and war’s end

SANAA (Reuters) – Unable to find work, Ahmed Farea has sold everything including his wife’s gold to feed and house two young daughters in one small room.

Elsewhere in Yemen’s capital Sanaa, widow Mona Muhammad has work but struggles to buy anything more nutritious than rice for her four children amid high prices.

And in a nearby hospital, severely malnourished children receive lifesaving nutritional drinks.

Across the country Yemenis are exhausting their coping mechanisms, and children are starving, amid the world’s largest humanitarian crisis.

On Monday the United Nations hopes to raise $3.85 billion at a virtual pledging event to avert what the U.N. aid chief has said would be a large-scale “man-made” famine, the worst the world will have seen for decades.

“I want the war to stop so we can go back to how we were … We could buy what we wanted and could feed our children,” said Muhammad.

Yemen was a poor country with a child malnutrition problem even before the six-year war disrupted imports, inflated the currency, displaced people, collapsed government services and destroyed incomes. Then COVID-19 hammered remittances from abroad that many families relied on.

‘UNIMAGINABLY CRUEL’

“Since the war and the blockade started, and work stopped, I can’t buy anything anymore. Where am I supposed to get it from?” said Farea, who wheels his barrow daily to collect water in cans from a neighborhood tank provided for poor people.

“I sleep all morning and then have lunch at noon from whatever God supplies and that covers the rest of the day.”

His work in construction declined in the wake of the political upheaval caused by Yemen’s 2011 uprising, he said. He then sold fruit but rising prices after war broke out in late 2014 made this unprofitable.

As needs have risen in the past year, funding of the aid response has dropped, leading the U.N. and other aid agencies to scale down or close various assistance programs.

Famine has never been officially declared in Yemen but pockets of famine-like conditions have appeared for the first time in two years, the U.N. has said.

In 2018 and 2019, the U.N. prevented famine due to a well-funded aid appeal. But in 2020 the world body only received just over half the $3.4 billion it needed.

“What is happening to the people of Yemen is unimaginably cruel. Aid groups are catastrophically underfunded and overstretched. The parties to this senseless war specialize in producing suffering and the weapon of choice is hunger,” said Jan Egeland, secretary general of the Norwegian Refugee Council, on a visit to Yemen.

There has been a recent renewed push by the U.N. and the United States for a negotiated end to the war, widely seen as a proxy conflict between Saudi Arabia and Iran. New U.S. President Joe Biden has said Yemen is a priority, declaring a halt to U.S. support for the Saudi-led military campaign.

(Reporting by Reuters Yemen team,; Writing by Lisa Barrington; editing by Emelia Sithole-Matarise)

Ethiopians dying, hungry and fearful in war-hit Tigray: agencies

NAIROBI (Reuters) – Ethiopians in the war-scarred north are dying from lack of healthcare services, are suffering food and water shortages, and remain “terrified,” according to aid agencies finally accessing remoter parts of Tigray region.

Just when people were harvesting crops in early November, the federal army launched an offensive against forces of the former local ruling party, the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), whom it accused of insurrection.

Thousands died and more than 300,000 fled their homes during battles and air-strikes, creating a humanitarian crisis in the already poor region of about 5 million people.

Though the government captured regional capital Mekelle and declared the war over by the end of the month, aid groups, the United Nations and some officials say reaching needy people has been hindered by violence, bureaucracy and logistical obstacles.

“The people are terrified, they have suffered a lot,” Medecins Sans Frontieres’ (MSF) emergency program head Mari Carmen Vinoles told Reuters as the medical charity made first forays into rural areas near towns including Adrigat and Axum.

MSF said there was barely any healthcare provision beyond Mekelle and a handful of towns, meaning people were dying without life-saving help for conditions such as pneumonia or childbirth complications.

In Adigrat, MSF found doctors and nurses struggling to keep “hungry patients” alive, Vinoles said. The main hospital’s ambulances had been stolen.

“Every time we reach a new area, we find food, water, health services depleted, and a lot of fear among the population. Everybody is asking for food,” she added.

‘PEOPLE ARE STARVING’

The United Nations’ children’s agency UNICEF said on Monday that malnutrition was the leading cause of death in clinics in the town of Shire, where the situation was particularly grave.

Many Tigrayans had relied on food aid even before the war, with locust plagues in early 2020 worsening their plight.

“Central Tigray is a black hole” because most people remain in villages and aid groups only have access to towns, said Action Against Hunger’s (AAH) Ethiopia director Panos Navrozidis.

Fear of fighting appeared to be keeping people hiding in mountains unable to seek food and medical treatment, he said.

Health workers had not been paid for three months, both MSF and AAH said.

The state-run Ethiopian Press Agency quoted the Tigray Water Resource Management Bureau as saying clean water was running short for many because of damaged infrastructure, looted offices, stolen equipment and an inoperative dam.

With media access and communications to Tigray still difficult, Reuters was unable to independently verify the reports. Representatives for the TPLF, who said weeks ago they were still fighting from hideouts, could not be reached.

Mulu Nega, Tigray’s government-appointed interim leader, told Reuters earlier this week that authorities had begun distributing aid last weekend after struggling to find cars to transport supplies around rural mountainous terrain.

The Ministry of Peace said on Tuesday that the government was working with humanitarian partners to rapidly deliver aid, with 1.8 million beneficiaries so far.

Even so, foreign disquiet remains.

The European Union last week suspended budget support for Ethiopia worth 88 million euros ($107 million) until aid groups had better access.

One Ethiopian official acknowledged that “people are starving” during a meeting with the United Nations and aid groups on Jan. 8, according to official notes of the meeting seen by Reuters and authenticated by two sources.

“If urgent emergency assistance is not mobilized, hundreds of thousands might starve to death,” Berhane Gebretsadik, an administrator for the federally-appointed interim Tigray government, told the meeting.

(Reporting by Nairobi newsroom; Writing by Maggie Fick; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)

Guatemalan families mourn death of children as hunger spreads

By Sofia Menchu

LA PALMILLA, Guatemala (Reuters) – Two-year-old Yesmin Anayeli Perez died this week of illnesses linked to malnutrition, the third small child to die from similar causes in an impoverished mountain village in eastern Guatemala within weeks, residents and health officials said.

Residents of the indigenous Mayan village, La Palmilla, and other parts of a region known as the Dry Corridor sunk deeper into poverty last year when economic damage wrought by droughts and two devastating hurricanes was compounded by the coronavirus lockdown.

The second of three children, Yesmin had a history of acute malnutrition, which causes rapid weight-loss and wasting, and for which she was hospitalized several times over the past year.

In the months before her death, Yesmin’s legs and arms were stick-like and her belly swollen by water retention, even though she had gained a little weight. Reuters visited her family in their home in October, where Yesmin, dressed in a purple t-shirt, was being fed a high protein mash by her mother.

In the early hours of Monday, Yesmin died, her eyes bulging and her frail body distorted by a persistent cough and long struggle with lung illness linked to her inadequate nutrition, her father Ignoja Perez told Reuters.

Just over half the normal weight for her age, she was suffering malnutrition and pneumonia made worse by the cold and damp weather that followed the hurricanes, local health official Santiago Esquivel said.

Sitting in front of her small coffin, in a home with a dirt floor and tin roof, her father said the family had been hopeful she would make a recovery.

“I bought her some vitamins on Sunday, to see if she would put on weight, we were going to start the treatment on Monday, with a spoonful,” Perez recalled. “But she got worse.”

Yesmin was buried on a hilltop along with some of her clothes, a bottle of water and a small, orange plastic drinking cup in a traditional ceremony on Tuesday.

The family had celebrated her second birthday with a bowl of chicken soup just a few weeks earlier.

The Guatemalan government denies that Yesmin was suffering malnutrition at the time of her death, or at any time during 2020. However, medical records reviewed by Reuters showed she was diagnosed as suffering from acute malnutrition at least until March.

Guatemala’s Food and Nutritional Security Secretariat said in a statement that Yesmin and her family had received support from authorities, in recognition that she had suffered malnutrition and lung problems at birth.

Asked why she was not classified as malnourished in 2020, the agency referred Reuters to the Health Ministry. The ministry did not respond to requests for comment.

TRAPPED BY POVERTY

Government data show acute malnutrition among the under-fives rose by 80% in Guatemala in 2020 compared to 2019.

The government said the jump was partly due to improved methodology. However, data gathered by Oxfam last year also showed large increases in families facing food shortages, including a four-fold jump in severe shortages in the province around La Palmilla.

At least 46 children under five died of hunger-related causes in 2020 in Guatemala, according to the government data, well below previous years. Ivan Aguilar, a humanitarian program coordinator based in Guatemala at Oxfam, said the drop appeared to be due to officials attributing deaths related to malnutrition to other causes, including the case of Yesmin.

Yesmin was the third young child to die in the village of around 3,000 people since October, local health official Esquivel said. Yesmin was buried a few feet away from another girl who died on Dec. 26.

The deaths are unusual even in a region that grew tragically accustomed to such deaths after drought destroyed crops every year for half of the past decade, Esquivel added.

“Sometimes a child would die, but not like this, one after the other,” he said.

The crisis is driving a new round of migration north.  But in La Palmilla and other villages in the eastern highlands, people said they lack the money to up and leave.

Without work for months during a lockdown from February, Perez borrowed money and sold his coffee crop, spending the little he raised to pay for Yesmin’s treatment in nearby city Zacapa.

The two hurricanes in November wiped out his field of beans, leaving only corn in the ground, and the walls of his mud-block house cracked with the rain, letting the winter chill inside.

“I wish I could go to the United States, but without money, we have to stay,” he said, looking down at his daughter’s still body.

(Reporting by Sofia Menchu; Writing by Stefanine Eschenbacher; Editing by Frank Jack Daniel and Rosalba O’Brien)

World Bank tells G20: Pandemic threatens food security of poor nations

By Andrea Shalal

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The poorest countries in the world face food insecurity and malnutrition due to the coronavirus pandemic, a drop in foreign exchange earnings, export restrictions and the breakdown of supply chains, a senior World Bank official said on Tuesday.

Mari Pangestu, the World Bank’s managing director for development policy, underscored the need for global cooperation to avert food crises in the most vulnerable countries in remarks to an online meeting of agriculture ministers from the Group of 20 major economies.

“Refrain from imposing export restrictions and avoid unnecessary import barriers and build up of stocks,” she said, adding that global grain production and stocks were at near all-time highs, making restrictions unnecessary.

Pangestu told the ministers that concerted national actions, international cooperation and additional funding to shore up agricultural production could limit the risks of food insecurity and malnutrition.

“The G20 accounts for a large share of food trade and hence its actions will have significant global impact,” she said, urging G20 countries to ensure that supply chains for food continue to flow and to prioritize food and food-supply logistics as essential.

Food security emerged as a growing concern during last week’s virtual meetings of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund with finance ministers from around the world.

In addition to the pandemic, which has triggered the deepest recession since the 1930s, the worst locust plague in decades is decimating millions of hectares of crops as it spreads across Africa, the Middle East, North Africa and South Asia.

Locust swarms have infested 23 countries, according to World Bank data. They have torn through large swathes of food crops in the Horn of Africa, where more than 24 million people are already “food insecure” and 12 million people are internally displaced, the Bank said in a recent blog posting.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that 821 million people, or nearly 11% of the world population, are undernourished, the highest rate since 2011.

Pangestu said the Bank, which is making $160 billion available to respond to the pandemic over the next 15 months, is working closely with countries and international partners to monitor food supplies, and how the loss of income is impacting people’s ability to buy food.

She said it was critical to leverage community-based groups to distribute food, and implement social protection programs for the world’s poorest. Digital technologies could also help monitor harvest conditions and link producers with consumers.

Up to 80% of the workforce in some of the poorest countries are both producers and net consumers in the agricultural and food sectors, she said, underscoring the need to make food supply a priority.

“Let’s not repeat what happened in 2008 when trade restrictions amplified world food price spikes and caused 130-155 million more people to fall below the poverty line, especially in the most vulnerable countries,” Pangestu said.

G20 agriculture and food ministers agreed at a virtual meeting on Tuesday that emergency measures to contain the spread of the pandemic must not create “unnecessary barriers to trade or disruption to global food supply chains.”

(Reporting by Andrea Shalal, Editing by Franklin Paul and Paul Simao)

In Argentina’s north, indigenous children sicken and die from malnutrition

By Miguel Lo Bianco

TARTAGAL, Argentina (Reuters) – In Argentina, once one of the world’s richest countries and long a major supplier of beef, children are dying of hunger.

In Argentina’s far northern province of Salta, in a small indigenous community plagued by extreme poverty, eight children died in January alone from malnutrition and a lack of access to clean drinking water, health authorities say.

Women from the indigenous Wichi community carry their children who are undergoing treatment for malnourishment at a hospital, in Tartagal, in the Salta province, Argentina, February 27, 2020. Picture taken February 27, 2020. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino

The issue affects other places, too, and has prompted the national government to announce a plan to tackle hunger. The governor of Salta has declared a public health emergency, vowing to work with the national government to provide clean water in the province.

In the province last week, children from the Wichi community, with a population of just 1,200, played barefoot in the mud, outside homes constructed by hand from wood and cloth.

In Tartagal, the small town nearest to where the Wichi live, hospital beds are filled with Wichi children battling malnutrition and a host of other health issues linked to a lack of clean water, health officials said. Sometimes, the children arrive too late to make a recovery, according to Juan Lopez, manager of the hospital in Tartagal.

Complications related to the issues led to the deaths of the eight Wichi children in January, he said. The community also has one of the country’s highest rates of infant mortality.

A spokesman for Argentina’s ministry of health said, “We are constantly liaising with the province of Salta. We are doing food assistance and health assistance.” He added that there were teams from the federal government working in the province.

Liliana Ciriaco, a 45-year-old Wichi woman, said in an interview that there had been “many sicknesses.”

“There are some pregnant women who die, there are children who die, the elderly, too, and we don’t know what is going on,” she said.

A century ago, Argentina was one of the world’s most affluent countries, but it has weathered a series of economic crises in recent decades. The latest one began in 2018. Inflation hovers above 50% and the poverty rate is at 35%. Argentina’s indigenous communities, historically poor, have been especially hard hit.

A child from the indigenous Wichi community holds onto a feeding tube at a hospital, in Tartagal, in the Salta province, Argentina, February 26, 2020. Picture taken February 26, 2020. REUTERS/Ueslei Marcelino

For the Wichi community, the lack of access to safe water is a critical problem.

“The place where they access their water source has high salinization or even chemicals that have been used for agriculture, which cause many gastrointestinal diseases, diarrhea, malnutrition and, above all, dehydration,” said Diego Tipping, president of the Red Cross in Argentina.

Argentina’s new center-left President Alberto Fernandez campaigned on promises to address hunger, poverty and unemployment. In December, he announced a plan to combat the issue in the most affected areas of the country called “Argentina Against Hunger.”

Alejandro Deane, president of the Siwok Foundation, which is dedicated to improving water access for indigenous communities in northern Argentina, called the situation for the Wichi community “disastrous.”

“There is no good news. What needs to be done? What can be done? Here we need a long-term plan, not a short-term plan,” Deane said.

(Reporting by Miguel Lo Bianco; Additional reporting by Marina Lammertyn and Cassandra Garrison; Editing by Richard Chang)