The path out of global crises "must start with the smallest yet most devastating common denominator: Hunger," writes Ute Klamert, Deputy Executive Director for Partnerships and Advocacy of the UN World Food Program.
When the earth shook in Syria and Turkey in February, it also jogged the memory of a crisis that had faded into the background over the past two years of international crisis. After 12 years of conflict, 12 million people - half the population—are starving in Syria. It is almost cynical that, given the cascade of global crises and the accompanying media overload, it took a new catastrophe to turn the spotlight back on the suffering of the people in Syria’s major crisis.
In the process, hunger has gone from a tidal wave to a tsunami of global proportions over the past few years. Conflict, the COVID-19 pandemic and the devastating consequences of the war in Ukraine have pushed 345 million people in 79 countries into acute hunger. That’s nearly three times as many as in 2019, and food prices are at a 10-year high despite efforts to stabilize markets, like the so-called Black Sea Grain Agreement. While the global North is feeling the effects mainly in their wallets, hardship is exploding in poor countries. Many countries have not yet recovered from the effects of the pandemic, are over-indebted, and poverty and hunger are rampant. This also threatens to inflame existing tensions. We are seeing the first effects in Haiti, Sri Lanka, and currently in Kenya and the countries of the Sahel. Meanwhile, smallholder farmers in the global South are suffering from massive increases in fertilizer prices. What consequences this will have for future harvests can only be estimated, but the outlook is bleak. Aid organizations such as the United Nations World Food Program (WFP) are also finding it increasingly difficult to reach the growing number of people suffering from hunger. Increased food and fuel prices are making our purchasing and logistics more expensive, while the funding gap continues to grow.
Ute Klamert is the Deputy Executive Director for Partnerships and Advocacy of the UN World Food Program.
Add to this the climate crisis as a new constant. In the Horn of Africa, the upcoming rainy season is predicted to be weaker than necessary again—it would be the sixth in a row. The Damocles sword of famine has been hanging over the people of the entire region for months. Extreme weather events such as Hurricane Freddy uproot nature and people in Madagascar and Malawi. As recently as June 2022, heat waves in Pakistan were followed by floods that submerged a third of the country and destroyed 4.4 million hectares of fertile farmland, livestock and crops. This is not a temporary trend in the Global South, but it is literally destroying the food and livelihoods of us all. If we fail to curb climate-damaging emissions, then a full 30 percent of the world’s agricultural production capacity could be lost by the end of the century. The report just released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has once again highlighted the disproportionate impacts of climate change on the people who have contributed least to it.
The fact is: we are so deep in the global climate and food crisis that even major humanitarian crises, such as those taking place in Syria, Afghanistan or Haiti, are becoming forgotten crises.
The way out of the spiral must start with the smallest yet most devastating common denominator: Hunger. Thinking comprehensively, food aid can become a signpost out of the crisis thicket, starting with emergency aid for survival and ending with climate protection, gender equality and peace. Shortly after the earthquake in Syria, WFP trucks were rolling in loaded with food, because we have been in the country for a decade and have functioning aid structures. WFP reaches 5.5 million people across Syria with aid every month. In Somalia, WFP has massively scaled up emergency assistance over the past year, providing early cash support to vulnerable communities. This better arms people against climate shocks and has averted the threat of large-scale famine for now. In Ukraine, our teams are working close to the frontline, providing nutritional support to three million people every month.
This aid saves lives in acute crises. It is indispensable, but it is also expensive and only takes effect when disaster strikes. But food aid can do more. It can help break the crisis spiral so that those affected are not left with nothing after the next drought or flood.
In Bangladesh and Nepal, for example, support begins even before the next monsoon floods. When flooding threatens, families receive money to bring themselves and what little there is to live on to safety. If homes and livelihoods have been destroyed, climate insurance kicks in. This prevents those affected from slipping into poverty and hunger after the disaster. Anticipatory aid is not only more dignified—it is also more efficient and can reduce the cost of humanitarian aid by up to 50 percent.
In the five African countries of the Sahel, WFP literally starts at the bottom—with the soil and the smallholder farmers who cultivate it. Through better agriculture, they are wresting land from the desert and making it arable again. The fertile soil binds CO2, trees provide shade and make the soil more productive. This secures food and is good for the climate. The women sell the surplus yields on the market, generating income for their families. This strengthens not only families, but entire communities in the region.
Since 2018, WFP has worked with people to restore 158,000 hectares of land through simple farming methods. We are building simple but sustainable infrastructure, such as irrigation channels and roads. This helps through the next drought and creates prospects for young people beyond migration. In school meal programs, we promote education—especially for girls—invest in healthy nutrition with locally produced school meals and boost the local economy. In the period between harvests, vulnerable families receive cash transfers or nutritional assistance to prevent them from slipping into hunger and poverty. The numbers show: despite worrying hunger figures in Niger, 80 percent of villages there participating in these WFP programs no longer needed humanitarian assistance last year.
Residents and rescuers search for victims and survivors amidst the rubble of collapsed buildings following an earthquake in Harem, Syria.
Only months have passed since the earthquake in Syria and Turkey. The crisis spiral continues to spin rapidly, and with it, oblivion. In Afghanistan, WFP has to cut rations, while the risk of famine in the country is higher than it has been in a quarter of a century. The climate time bomb is also ticking loudly. We are slipping from one crisis to the next. The longer we wait, the more expensive it will be to find a way out of the growing crisis thicket. The political task remains to stop the toppling dominoes in time—to end conflicts that are still the main cause of hunger. But in the meantime, we need to find solutions. 60 years after its founding, WFP’s work has helped save millions of lives and change lives for the better. We are trying to forestall powerlessness and oblivion through aid and solutions. But we will not defeat the food crisis single-handedly. It needs the continued commitment of the international community. Because without that support, the best solution remains just a nice idea.