Can the world's forgotten food crises weather the war?
The war in Ukraine is rocking global food markets, threatening to trigger a global food crisis. Already stretched countries, where millions of people cannot afford food, are in desperate need of help, but aid funds are running dry.
Around 18 million people in the Horn of Africa are unable to secure food. Another 17 million in Yemen face high levels of food insecurity, and the same goes for some 4.5 million Haitians. These are some of the staggering numbers that UN agencies have revealed in the past month, as the hike in food, fuel and fertiliser prices threatens to further expose the world’s most vulnerable.
The economies of some of these countries are in shambles from years of conflict, climate change and, most recently, the pandemic. The disruption in grain exports from Ukraine and Russia, which are among the top producers of these staples, coupled with a growing number of countries imposing trade barriers on food exports, are sending the prices of staple foods through the roof.
“We have unprecedented challenges around the world over this situation and it doesn't seem to be getting any better,” Tomson Phiri, spokesman for the World Food Programme (WFP), told Geneva Solutions.
Choosing who eats
The WFP is among the humanitarian agencies working in the world’s most vulnerable regions to provide immediate relief for those in need. Phiri said that the UN agency’s $18 million budget from the beginning of the year is now far from covering what is needed, and an additional $777 million is needed for its emergency plan, especially for countries where the response is particularly underfunded.
“In Yemen, we've had to halve rations for eight million people so as to prioritise five million people who were starving. Same in Syria,” he said.
“We are having to choose who eats and who doesn't.”
Humanitarian agencies have had to pour their resources into also helping Ukraine, as millions have been left without income, a home and food. “WFP is short of $590 million to be able to scale up our response to reach 6 million people [in Ukraine] in the next three months,” said Phiri, who is currently visiting the country.
Ukraine, which used to be a supply source for the agency, is now in need of its help. Some 12,000 metric tonnes of wheat produced locally have helped relieve some of the needs within the country, said Phiri, while also noting that some of their contracts have been cancelled and exports have been placed on hold, including 30,000 metric tonnes of wheat primarily destined for Western Central Africa.
But the problem is not availability. “WFP has alternative sources from the international market, should these disruptions continue,” said Phiri. “But prices have increased due to the conflict, so that also means an increase in the operational costs for the WFP in a time when we don't have enough money.”
Aside from increasing the need for funds, Ukraine has also diverted attention from other crises as the media has largely turned the camera towards the invaded country.
“Sometimes you do not have the commensurate exposure to direct the world's attention to the plight of those who are poor and hungry,” he said, citing the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, South Sudan and Yemen.
“These are some of the forgotten crises and our challenge now is to tell the world that in addition to what is happening in Ukraine, there are more and more people who are equally in bad shape.”
The never ending climate threat
While the war could be what pushes countries over the edge, it is not the only worsening factor. In West Africa, the number of people going hungry has quadrupled in the last three years as droughts cause crops to fail year after year.
In East Africa, three consecutive droughts have parched the lands. Without pasture to eat and water to drink, livestock has been dying massively, forcing herders to move to other parts in search of grazing lands. And rain projections for this year are no better.
Six regions in Somalia could face famine within months if the rainy season fails, according to the WFP. A famine was averted last in 2017 thanks to humanitarian relief, the agency said in a statement, but this time around it might not be enough as the gap between what is needed and what is available has widened to $149m.
According to Colorado State University’s recent predictions, this year’s hurricane season in the Atlantic, which will start in June, will be more active than usual, posing a risk for food security in the region. Central American countries Guatemala and Honduras are already in trouble as poor farmers have been hit hard by agricultural losses from a very dry season last year and hurricanes Iota and Eta in 2020.
Caribbean islands, including Haiti, which is still recovering from the 2021 earthquake, have a 60 per cent chance of having a category 3-5 storm making landfall, according to the experts’ projections.
The threat that the war is posing to global food security has also shed some light on the faults of global food systems. “The world tends to be over reliant on a very small pool of countries to produce our food needs,” said Phiri, noting that countries can boost local production by supporting their farmers not only for their own subsistence but also for exports.