Up to 400,000 children are at risk of starving to death in the Democratic Republic of Congo unless humanitarian aid efforts are ramped up, the UN’s children’s agency has warned.
Fighting between government forces and regional militia in the Congo’s central Kasai province has created a “perfect storm of poverty, deprivation and conflict for the most vulnerable children”, UNICEF said in a report on Friday.
It called for urgent action to stop the violence against children; ensure access to essential services for all minors; and provide support for sustained humanitarian assistance.
According to the UN, an estimated 1.3 million people in Kasai were forced from their homes after fighting broke out in the region over a power dispute between a local chief and government authorities in August 2016.
UNICEF estimates that as a result of the displacement, which saw thousands of families flee to the countryside without adequate food or water supplies, hundreds of thousands are now facing severe acute malnutrition.
“The good news in Kasai is that the violence has decreased, but what we see there [are] families returning from the bush with children, and they come back in a terrible condition,” Christophe Boulierac, a spokesperson for UNICEF, told Al Jazeera.
“An estimated 770,000 children suffering from acute malnutrition, 400,000 of whom are suffering from severe acute malnutrition and are on the verge of dying.”
Parts of the Congo, one of the world’s poorest nations, has been beset by intercommunal conflict as well as clashes between anti-government fighters and forces loyal to incumbent President Joseph Kabila in recent years.
Meanwhile, Kinshasa – the capital – has been rocked by deadly protests demanding Kabila leave office.
The Congo’s main opposition parties allege Kabila “lost all legality and legitimacy” after failing to step down in 2016, when his last term as president officially ended.
Kabila has said elections for the post, initially set for November 2016, will take place in December.
Boulierac said that despite “facing several difficulties”, Kabila’s government must “lead” on the response to the ongoing crisis in Kasai.
“We need to react quickly with our nutritional response … at UNICEF, we sometimes say children might die if we don’t do anything, but in the case of Kasai children are dying, and have already died,” Boulierac, who visited the region last month, said
“There are 400,000 children whose lives are in danger. It’s a real tragedy, and it’s already happening.”
UNICEF has called for $88m in aid to address the crisis, saying it has left 3.8 million people in the Kasai region in need of humanitarian assistance.
The organisation is expected to present its report alongside government officials at a press conference in Kinshasa on Saturday.