This summer, I'm working at Plan International USA, an NGO that focuses on international development through the lens of children's and women's rights. One of the projects I've been a part of is the Global Emergency Response Coalition. It was formed between aid organizations in response to looming famine conditions and persistent hunger, threatening millions of people in South Sudan, Nigeria, Yemen, Somalia, and neighboring countries.

I had no idea that this famine was happening before I started working to fight it, and apparently, most of America didn't either. I became even more determined to understand the context around the ongoing crisis.

I discovered that more than 20 million people will face starvation in the coming months, and many have already been living through famine or near-famine conditions for extended periods of time. The effects are compounded by ongoing conflict and disease, but what intrigued me most was how people had been surviving without aid.

So, what exactly can you eat when all of your reliable food resources are gone? The answer is not much, but here's a list of what people are eating to survive. 

1. Water lily roots

Water lilies

Michel_Rathwell on Flickr

Water lilies are best known for their aesthetic properties, but during food shortages, they can be eaten as moderate-calorie root vegetables. Unfortunately, water lily roots (also known as lotus root) have little nutritional value (about 74 calories per 100 grams), and are often salvaged from polluted water.

2. Millet

Hirsenrispe - millet panicle

aivo2010 on Flickr

Millet is a small-seeded grass that is oftentimes cooked and processed as cereal in Asia. Millet is difficult to digest when it's raw, but it provides the protein and carbohydrates needed to stay alive.

3. Sorghum


ARPAEbiofuel on Flickr

Sorghum is another grain that is more comparable to oats. During droughts however, plants in the later stages of growth can contain toxic levels of cyanide and/or nitrates. The seeds can be boiled to provide limited sustenance.

4. Corn husks

When crops are failing and animals are dying, people resort to trying parts of plants that would not normally be considered edible. Corn husks can be chewed in an attempt to convince the body that it is eating, or boiled in water to add some consistency to the liquid.

5. Leaves

Pumpkin Leaves

dlofink on Flickr

I learned that oftentimes individuals will follow the few animals left in the region to alternative food sources. If an animal is eating leaves from the brush, that generally means that the leaves are safe for humans to eat as well.

6. Laluq tree

Senegal- Balanites aegyptiaca (desert date), Haffe Mouride-February, 2012

treesftf on Flickr

The Laluq tree, known in English as the desert date, produces a bitter, single-seeded fruit that can be eaten along with the tree's leaves or flowers. Sometimes entire villages survive on only this tree, as it continues to grow in arid conditions.

7. Maize


mnraaghu on Flickr

Maize relies on warm temperatures and is fairly resistant to drought, which makes it an optimal choice to grow during conflict situations or seasons of low rainfall. Even so, it's a difficult task and takes luck.

8. Livestock

Many of those affected by current famine conditions are nomadic pastoralists, whose herds are starving and dying due to lack of food and water. Families are forced to eat the animal carcasses to survive.

9. Contaminated water

Famines are often induced by drought, which entails fewer rains to replenish water sources. This causes an increase in the concentration of contaminants, which is then exacerbated by the need to use a single water source for animal consumption, human consumption and bathing.

10. Fortified peanut paste

This last one of course is not a natural source, but relief organizations provide peanut paste to children suffering from malnutrition. It is a highly fortified substance that provides children with key nutrients like protein, to help the youngest victims of famine conditions begin to heal.

None of these food sources are sustainable in the long-term. People are dying every day, and conditions continue to get worse. Although famines are caused by a variety of factors, the most immediate fix is to provide emergency relief like nutrition assistance and medical care. Strides are being made in the fight to end hunger, but there is still work to be done.