A senior UN official says northern Gaza is now in ‘full-blown famine’

Cindy McCain said a cease-fire and a greatly increased flow of aid through land and sea routes was essential to confronting the growing humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza.

Army supplies on a boat

In this image provided by the U.S. Army, soldiers assigned to the 7th Transportation Brigade (Expeditionary) and sailors attached to the MV Roy P. Benavidez assemble the Roll-On, Roll-Off Distribution Facility (RRDF), or floating pier, off the shore of Gaza on April 26, 2024. The U.S. expects to have on-the-ground arrangements in Gaza ready for humanitarian workers to start delivering aid this month via a new U.S.-backed sea route for Gaza aid. An official with the U.S. Agency for International Development tells the AP that humanitarian groups expect to have their part of preparations complete by early to mid-month. (U.S. Army via AP)

A top U.N. official said Friday that hard-hit northern Gaza was now in “full-blown famine” after more than six months of war between Israel and Hamas and severe Israeli restrictions on food deliveries to the Palestinian territory.

Cindy McCain, the American director of the U.N. World Food Program, became the most prominent international official so far to declare that trapped civilians in the most cut-off part of Gaza had gone over the brink into famine.

“It’s horror,” McCain told NBC’s “Meet the Press” in an interview to air Sunday. “There is famine — full-blown famine — in the north, and it’s moving its way south.”

She said a cease-fire and a greatly increased flow of aid through land and sea routes was essential to confronting the growing humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza, home to 2.3 million people.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

There was no immediate comment from Israel, which controls entrance into Gaza and says it is beginning to allow in more food and other humanitarian aid through land crossings.

The panel that serves as the internationally recognized monitor for food crises said in March that northern Gaza was on the brink of famine and likely to experience it in May. Since March, northern Gaza had not received anything like the aid needed to stave off famine, a U.S. Agency for International Development humanitarian official for Gaza told The Associated Press. The panel’s next update will not come before this summer.

The USAID official said on-the-ground preparations for a new U.S.-led sea route were on track to bring in more food — including treatment for hundreds of thousands of starving children — by early or mid-May. That’s when the American military expects to finish building a floating pier to receive the shipments.

Ramping up the delivery of aid on the planned U.S.-backed sea route will be gradual as aid groups test the distribution and security arrangements for relief workers, the USAID official said.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity, citing security concerns accompanying the official’s work on conflicts. They were some of the agency’s first comments on the status of preparations for the Biden administration’s $320 million Gaza pier project, for which USAID is helping coordinate on-the-ground security and distribution.

At a factory in rural Georgia on Friday, USAID Administrator Samantha Power pointed to the food crises in Gaza and other parts of the world as she announced a $200 million investment aimed at increasing production of emergency nutritional paste for starving children under 5.

Power spoke to factory workers, peanut farmers and local dignitaries sitting among pallets of the paste at the Mana nonprofit in Fitzgerald. It is one of two factories in the U.S. that produces the nutritional food, which is used in clinical settings and made from ground peanuts, powdered milk, sugar and oil, ready to eat in plastic pouches resembling large ketchup packets.

“This effort, this vision meets the moment,” Power said. “And it could not be more timely, more necessary or more important.”

Under pressure from the U.S. and others, Israeli officials in recent weeks have begun slowly reopening some border crossings for relief shipments.

But aid coming through the sea route, once it’s operational, still will serve only a fraction — half a million people — of those who need help in Gaza. Aid organizations including USAID stress that getting more aid through border crossings is essential to staving off famine.

Children under 5 are among the first to die when wars, droughts or other disasters curtail food. Hospital officials in northern Gaza reported the first deaths from hunger in early March and said most of the dead were children.

Power said the U.N. has called for 400 metric tons of the nutritional paste “in light of the severe hunger that is pervading across Gaza right now, and the severe, acute humanitarian crisis.” USAID expects to provide a quarter of that, she said.

Globally, she said at the Georgia factory, the treatment made there “will save untold lives, millions of lives.”

USAID is coordinating with the World Food Program and other humanitarian partners and governments on security and distribution for the pier project, while U.S. military forces finish building it. President Joe Biden, under pressure to do more to ease the humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza as the U.S. provides military support for Israel, announced the project in early March.

  • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

U.S. Central Command said in a statement Friday that offshore assembly of the floating pier has been temporarily paused due to high winds and sea swells, which caused unsafe conditions for soldiers. The partially built pier and the military vessels involved have gone to Israel’s Port of Ashdod, where the work will continue.

A U.S. official said the high seas will delay the installation for several days, possibly until later next week. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss operation details, said the pause could last longer if the bad weather continues because military personnel and divers have to get into the water for the final installation.

The struggles this week with the first aid delivery through a newly reopened land corridor into north Gaza underscored the uncertainty about security and the danger still facing relief workers. Israeli settlers blocked the convoy before it crossed Wednesday. Once inside Gaza, the convoy was commandeered by Hamas militants, before U.N. officials reclaimed it.

In Gaza, the nutritional treatment for starving children is most urgently needed in the northern part of the Palestinian territory. Civilians have been cut off from most aid supplies, bombarded by Israeli airstrikes and driven into hiding by fighting.

Acute malnutrition rates there among children under 5 have surged from 1% before the war to 30% five months later, the USAID official said. The official called it the fastest such climb in hunger in recent history, more than in grave conflicts and food shortages in Somalia or South Sudan.

One of the few medical facilities still operating in northern Gaza, Kamal Adwan hospital, is besieged by parents bringing in thousands of children with malnutrition for treatment, the official said. Aid officials believe many more starving children remain unseen and in need, with families unable to bring them through fighting and checkpoints for care.

Saving the gravely malnourished children in particular requires both greatly increased deliveries of aid and sustained calm in fighting, the official said, so that aid workers can set up treatment facilities around the territory and families can safely bring children in for the sustained treatment needed.


Bynum reported from Fitzgerald, Georgia. Associated Press writers Lolita C. Baldor in Washington and Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed.

Get daily updates from WHYY News!

WHYY is your source for fact-based, in-depth journalism and information. As a nonprofit organization, we rely on financial support from readers like you. Please give today.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal