Food Crisis Worsens Across Several African Countries, UN Agencies Warn

9 March 2017

Millions of people face acute food shortages across a swathe of African countries, the UN has warned repeatedly in recent weeks, with parts of South Sudan in particular facing famine.

At a humanitarian summit in late February in Oslo, governments pledged US$672 million in funds for Nigeria and the Lake Chad region, three days after the heads of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the World Food Programme (WFP), and the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) issued a joint statement warning of famine in South Sudan.

“People are dying of hunger. We must take action now," said the FAO’s José Graziano da Silva, the WFP’s Ertharin Cousin, and UNICEF’s Anthony Lake in the communiqué on South Sudan. The landlocked African country has been ravaged by civil war since late 2013, just a couple of short years after it became independent from Sudan.

Separate FAO statements have recently warned that worsening drought is leading to record or near-record price increases in the East African region, while a growing food crisis is affecting Yemen.

The worsening situation coincides with the release late last month of a major FAO report on the future of food and agriculture, which cautions that future global food security could be “in jeopardy” due to growing pressure on natural resources and climate change.

Conflict and post-conflict reconstruction

In South Sudan, “protracted violence, insecurity, displacement, and a protection crisis” were among factors preventing humanitarian access and aid delivery, the three UN agencies said. When the UN uses a formal famine declaration, it means that people have already started dying of hunger.

Just this week, UN officials issued further warnings that aid workers are struggling to gain safe access to those most in need of help.

“The humanitarian crisis in South Sudan is rapidly escalating, and hunger and malnutrition have reached new disturbing levels. Fighting, insecurity and lack of access to aid have left some 100,000 people facing starvation and a further one million are on the brink of famine,” said Stephen O’Brien, the UN’s Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator, on 4 March after visiting the region.

The UN has further warned that by this upcoming July, which is considered the “lean season,” the number of people deemed “food insecure” in South Sudan could hit 5.5 million.

In Nigeria and the Lake Chad basin region, some 7.1 million people are now severely food insecure, the FAO said last month.

Violence related to the armed group Boko Haram has also contributed to food insecurity in the region, undermining food security and livelihoods. In Nigeria, 120,000 people face famine, almost all of whom are in the north-eastern Borno State, which has been particularly affected by the conflict.

Similarly, 6.2 million people in conflict-scarred Somalia face acute food insecurity, with maize and sorghum harvests 75 percent lower than their usual level. The magnitude of the crisis led to an emergency visit this week by the UN’s new Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, as well as O’Brien.

The World Health Organization has also cautioned that a rapid escalation of the “drought response” is needed to address the risk of famine in Somalia to avoid “the worst-case scenario.”

“A third famine in 25 years is a real possibility,” the UN health agency has warned, adding that the combination of malnourishment and limited clean water sources is also causing the spread of severe – and preventable – diseases, including the above-mentioned cholera.

A drought affecting the East African region has pushed local cereal prices near record levels in parts of Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, South Sudan, Uganda, and Tanzania, the FAO said – despite the agency’s index for international food prices remaining relatively stable.

Meanwhile, 17.1 million people are struggling to feed themselves in Yemen, with 7.3 million needing emergency food assistance.

Overstocking livestock

Unsustainable agricultural practices had also contributed to the crisis and weakened resilience to recurrent shocks, said Josef Schmidhuber, deputy director in the FAO’s trade and markets division, in remarks to Bridges.

In Kenya, for example, efforts to tackle tax evasion through tighter controls on bank transactions had led to the overstocking of livestock, which increasingly serves farmers as a store of value, Schmidhuber added.

“This resulted in too many cattle for too few hectares, and hence in overgrazing, shortages of feedstuff and food, and eventually a deterioration of livestock herds,” he told Bridges.

In South Sudan, the conflict is preventing herders from moving freely to greener pastures, placing further pressure on the natural environment during a period when producers were struggling to cope with the effects of the multi-year “El Niño” weather system.  The conflict has also cut off trade routes to neighbouring countries, sources said.

At the same time, although vaccination programmes had helped to make cattle a more valuable asset, they had also had the perverse effect of increasing the attractiveness of livestock to warlords, Schmidhuber said.

Other experts familiar with South Sudan underscored the importance of the broader collapse of state institutions. “The failure of leadership and governance is the main contributor,” said Constantine Bartel, a researcher at the University of Zurich’s Center for Corporate Responsibility and Sustainability, in comments to Bridges.

The political and ethnic conflict had coincided with falling oil prices – the main source of government revenue – causing inflation to sky-rocket, a spike in food prices and a collapse in imports, Bartel said.

As in South Sudan, people in north-eastern Nigeria are facing difficulties accessing food as a result of the impact of conflict on the ability of traders to access the region.

“Traders cannot go there freely, and production is disrupted,” said Olawale Ogunkola, professor of economics at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria.

Ogunkola told Bridges that the conflict had affected critical infrastructure such as roads and bridges, compounding longer-term problems associated with neglect by national and state-level governments, and the resulting under-investment in the sector.

One government official observed that, in some West African countries, food shortages were occurring at the same time as overall food production levels were robust.

“It’s not that farmers are not producing enough, but it is being exported out of the country,” the source said, noting that poverty in conflict-hit regions had affected people’s ability to access affordable food.

Global food security “in jeopardy”

Along with the above-mentioned crises, UN officials have warned in recent weeks that there are also increasing food security risks on a wider geographical scale that require a quick, dedicated response.

In introducing his agency’s report on the future of food and agriculture, FAO Director-General José Graziano da Silva warned in late February that “global food security could be in jeopardy” as climate change and resource pressures threatened progress towards ending hunger and poverty.

In 2015, governments at the UN agreed to end hunger and all forms of malnutrition by 2030, as part of an ambitious action agenda structured around seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). (See Bridges Weekly, 1 October 2015)

The report identifies key trends affecting global food systems in coming decades, as well as a set of challenges that governments will need to overcome in order to eradicate hunger while making food and agriculture systems sustainable.

Trends affecting food and agriculture include population growth and changing diets, structural changes in economies, and climate change. While hunger and extreme poverty have fallen over the last couple of decades, critical parts of food systems were become more capital-intensive and concentrated in fewer hands, the agency said.

At the same time, the number of conflicts, crises, and natural disasters are growing and becoming more intense.

Despite economic growth and rising incomes, the report notes that current levels of investment are inadequate to achieve the SDGs – with additional annual investments of US$265 billion still needed in order to end hunger by 2030.

The report also describes the slowdown in global trade since the global financial crisis of 2008-09, both for farm goods and other merchandise. It also addresses the growth in importance of regional trade agreements and what these could mean for the tariff preferences that many developing countries have benefitted from in the past, along with the implications for rules of origin.

ICTSD reporting.

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