It is hard to describe what it means for someone to be “severely wasted,” but when you hold a child who is suffering from this most lethal form of acute malnutrition you understand, and you never forget. In Afghanistan last year, I met a 3-month-old girl named Wahida who was so malnourished I could barely feel the weight of her in my arms. Her suffering has left an indelible mark on my heart.
Now the suffering in Gaza is leaving a similar mark on me. Last week, I visited the al-Nasser Hospital in Khan Younis in southern Gaza. Inside, I was met with a sea of patients, health care workers and the displaced. And there were children everywhere: girls and boys running through the corridors, resting on mattresses with their families and recovering in hospital beds. I met a 16-year-old being treated for injuries sustained when her neighborhood was bombed. Though she survived, the doctors say she will never be able to walk again.
The medical staffers were mounting truly heroic efforts to provide lifesaving care to their patients, including dozens of children. But with their supplies of fuel, medicines and water nearly depleted, it is unclear how long they can continue to provide even the most basic of interventions. In the hospital’s neonatal ward, for example, tiny babies were clinging to life in incubators, as doctors worried about how they could keep the machines running without fuel.
These children, Gaza’s youngest — as well as those in utero — are especially vulnerable to the burgeoning crisis of malnutrition and the prospect of starvation. After more than six weeks of war amid bombs and gunfire, a lack of electricity and the near-total closure of all border crossings, Gaza’s one million children are now food insecure, facing what could soon become a public health catastrophe.
Supplies of nutritious food have virtually run out. Shops are closed, and in the streets of Khan Younis I saw piles of garbage where there once were food stands. Last week, the al-Salam Mill in Deir al-Balah was reportedly hit in an attack and forced to shut down. This was Gaza’s last functional flour mill. All local flour production is now effectively halted.
The hostage release deal outlined on Tuesday would include a cease-fire of at least four days and would reportedly allow for some new shipments of basic humanitarian aid to go to the people of Gaza who desperately need it. But to save lives and ensure that Gaza’s population, especially its children, remain healthy and stave off looming health issues, we as humanitarian partners must be permitted to bring quality food, essential nutrition supplies, water and fuel into Gaza, at levels that are sufficient to meet the surging needs. And we must be permitted to continue safely delivering these resources after hostilities resume.
Without sufficient quantities of nutritious food, people will quickly become malnourished and could eventually starve. The risks associated with food insecurity are compounded by the extreme scarcity of safe drinking water. According to international humanitarian standards, one person needs a minimum of almost four gallons of clean water per day for drinking and to meet basic personal needs.
In Gaza, this standard is far from being met: About 96 percent of the water supply is considered unfit for human consumption. Water pumping and wastewater treatment have all ceased to function because of the lack of fuel. People have resorted to accessing water from