A Million or More Face Starvation Death

A mother holds her malnourished baby at a hospital in Baidoa, Somalia on September 3, 2022. (Photo: Ed Ram/Getty Images)

In May the Global Report on Food Crises (GRFC-22), prepared by UN agencies and other expert groups, issued a clear warning stating that the acute hunger situation in world, including its extreme forms, is worse now than ever before since this annual report started being prepared.

Then in mid-September the Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Food Program, which had a leading role in preparing the first report, issued a mid-term update as well as a projection for the coming months of October 2022 to January 2023 for 19 critical hunger hot-spots of the world. As we are already in this time-zone, it is important to remember what these reports say– that while 222 million people in 53 countries face acute food insecurity and are in urgent need of assistance (also called state of ‘crisis and above’ and ‘phase 3 and above’ hunger situation), 45 million people in 37 countries are projected to have so little to eat that they will be severely malnourished, AT RISK OF DEATH, OR ALREADY FACING STARVATION OR DEATH (stage 4). The worst stage (stage five—starvation and death) listed here is stage five hunger or catastrophic hunger situation. As many as 970,000 people are affected by this catastrophic stage of hunger, an incredible ten times increase compared to the situation just six years back. Thus clearly considering the high number in this highest risk category as well as the nearly 45 million stated to be at risk of death over a wider area (emergency category or phase four and above), the high risk of over a million actually dying of hunger and starvation between now and January 2023 is a very real possibility and the tragedy can even be bigger.

These reports prepared by agencies responsible for humanitarian aid say of course that if humanitarian food aid is stepped up significantly it is still possible to save several of the worst affected people, but at the same time also add that it is not possible for humanitarian agencies to access some of the worst affected people—numbering in millions— who are trapped in conflict zones. What is more, these reports admit that the available humanitarian aid is now at lower levels compared to some earlier periods– at a time when the need is the greatest. Hence overall the situation of about a million people facing starvation death in the coming weeks should be treated as the lower end of the real threat.

Here it may be noted that in these reports the hunger of those countries is emphasized more where the situation is understood to be beyond local capacity and resources to tackle it.

It is also clear that the situation has been deteriorating and the numbers just keep going up, as seen from comparisons with the first GRFC of 2016, when the stage 3 and above hunger affected people were 108 million, or less than a half of the numbers now (222 million). Between the 2021 estimate (193 million) and now, nearly 29 million more have been added in phase three and above hunger category. In 2021, nearly 40 million people in 36 countries faced emergency (phase four and above) hunger situation in 36 countries, and now the number is 45 million in 37 countries.

In Afghanistan as many as 6 million people are affected by a food insecurity emergency (phase 4 and above). Loss of life relating to this may be already occurring. This is largely caused by conflict, maladministration, delay in releasing seized dues of Afghanistan by the USA, adverse weather including prolonged drought followed by heavy floods in some parts.

In Tigray region of Ethiopia renewed conflict has increased risk. Neighboring Amhara and Afar should be added to the high-risk situation. South-east part of Ethiopia is affected by fifth consecutive rain failure. Overall about 20.4 million face stage 3 hunger in Ethiopia, perhaps the highest number in any single country. In fact most of the entire Horn of Africa region has been affected by fifth consecutive rain failure or at least below normal rains.

In Nigeria 19.5 million people are affected by acute food insecurity. Most of those in worst condition are in conflict- affected zones. Several of them are simply inaccessible to humanitarian organizations.

Somalia is affected by fifth consecutive year of below normal rains, a situation worsened by conflicts. 6.7 million are affected by acute food insecurity, 2.2 million are in an emergency situation, nearly 300,000 face a catastrophic situation.

South Sudan has experienced unfavorable weather conditions and in addition is very adversely affected by conflict situations. In Yemen earlier 19 million people were stated to be affected by acute food insecurity, but with the reduction of conflict this number may have reduced, although Yemen still remains a hunger hot-spot. Syria is another West Asian country included in the hunger hot-spots.

From the American part of the world Haiti, Guatemala and Honduras have been included. In South Asia, apart from Afghanistan, parts of Pakistan and Sri Lanka too are included.

In Africa the Central African Republic and Malawi are new additions, adding to Sudan, the Republic of Congo, Zimbabwe, Madagascar and parts of the Sahel region.

There are 39 countries or territories which are common in all lists of stage three and above hunger prepared since 2016. The number of stage three and over hunger affected people in these 39 countries increased from 94 million in 2016 to 180 million in 2021.

In 2021 70% of the stage three and over hunger affected people were concentrated in just 10 countries—Democratic Republic of the Congo, Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Yemen, Nigeria, Syria, Sudan, South Sudan, Haiti and Pakistan.

In addition to these hunger hot-spots some other countries like Myanmar have been mentioned for careful watch as the situation here too has been deteriorating. While food is being exported from Ukraine, increasing numbers of people in the conflict zones of Ukraine also need emergency assistance.

Prolonged droughts and repeated rain failure have been cited as an important reason for the distressing situation in many of these countries or regions, while excessive floods have been mentioned as an important factor in some other countries like Pakistan. Such extreme weather events have been occurring more frequently, at times to unprecedented extent, and in this context a close linkage with climate change is established.

The other most common factor responsible for creating such acute hunger situation is conflict.  In 2021 as many as 139 million of the total number of 193 million people affected by phase 3 and above of hunger lived in conflict zones, up from 99 million in 2020, a very big increase indeed. Out of the 51 million internally displaced people in 2021, 45 million people were from stage 3 and above hunger areas, the worst affected being Afghanistan, Congo, Ethiopia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. Of the total 21 million refugees and 4 million asylum seekers as many as 60% are hosted in more hunger affected areas, creating a very difficult situation.

The high levels of debts of several of these countries and the austerity programs related to these have also resulted in increasing the distress of people. Food inflation, partly caused by the Ukraine conflict but even more by manipulations of big grain companies and traders, has aggravated the already difficult situation in several countries, which are regretting their dependence on essential food.

The international community has not been able to prioritize the distress of people in worst hunger affected areas adequately. Enough resources for an adequate relief and rehabilitation effort have not been available. GRFC-22 has noted with regret, “Funding for humanitarian food assistance has been falling since 2017—the current shortfall is particularly stark.’’ The USA has mobilized over 60 billion dollars so far this year for Ukraine aid effort, mostly in the form of weapons, but when it came to raising resources for the worst hunger affected region ( Horn of Africa region—comprising Somalia, Ethiopia and parts of Kenya), it could promise only around two billion dollars. This may be compared also to the annual US expenditure on alcoholic beverages alone of 252 billion dollars. Around mid-year in 2022 the European Union announced a special package for fighting hunger in view of the disturbing hunger situation in world, but this amounted to only 0.6 billion Euros, and only about one-fourth was for immediate humanitarian assistance for all hunger-affected countries in Africa, the Pacific and the Caribbean. Of course this is in addition to normal aid-flows, but then the normal aid is frequently not for humanitarian purposes, and at times even linked to business interests and and other narrow objectives like checking migrants flows to rich countries.

As the weeks ahead can be extremely distressing for the people of these countries and regions, it is important to mobilize more support and relief supplies on emergency basis. Debt waiving and relaxation of austerity programs will be helpful too.

On a longer-term basis it is also important to assess why farmers, pastorals, fishers and other people of Africa and some other parts of world are finding themselves in such difficult and vulnerable conditions—where have the development priorities gone wrong and what can be done to have the right priorities.

Bridget Mugambe, Program Coordinator of a leading organization of rural communities AFSA (Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa) Mugambe recently stated, “Today the majority of the solutions put forth and funded by governments and donors to address these problems are, in the long run, making things worse. Industrial agricultural methods, dubbed ‘climate smart agriculture’, promote the use of excessive chemical inputs on plants and in the soil, carbon credit programs are being developed to legtimize pollution and to uproot communities from their land. These are just a few examples of the false solutions brought by the rich and the powerful.”

Dr. Million Belay, AFSA   Coordinator, has provided a message of hope by stating, “Africa could feed itself many times over. But agro-ecology cannot be and must not be overlooked by the decision makers as the most effective way to build resilience and enable small-scale farmers, pastoralists and fishers to adapt to climate change.”

The roots  of hunger and famine can be traced to the slave trade and colonial plunder, as well as the neo-colonial corporate disruptions which seriously harmed rural communities, creating many new situations of conflicts as old systems of mutual help and harmony were broken down by these changes. Right up to present times these impacts are continuing. This has to be checked and replaced with policies of peace and harmony, equality and agro-ecology.

Internal and external conflicts are a major cause of distress and hunger. In Africa this was made worse by the French, British and NATO intervention in Libya ad elsewhere, leading to civil war conditions and harm to neighboring poorer countries whose migrant workers were earning their livelihood in oil-rich Libya and sending home remittances. After a long period of direct colonial plunder, in recent decades also ruthless promotion of business interests by some of the most powerful countries has continued to cause civil strife as well as livelihood disruption in several African countries.

In the middle of all these and other persisting serious problems, it is important to emphasize the urgency of the hunger crisis as neglect has proved very costly earlier, resulting in several hundred thousand avoidable deaths.

The World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) stated in 1987, during the period October 1984-April 1987 “the drought triggered, environment-development crisis in Africa peaked, putting 35  million people at risk, killing perhaps a million…As the drought receded , some 19 million people continued to suffer famine.”

As late as between October 2010 and April 2012, according to United Nations estimates (note dated May 2, 2013), as many as 260,000 people, over half of them children, died in famine in Somalia alone. The top UN Humanitarian Coordinator for Somalia stated that this happened partly because the international community did not act quickly enough.

Earlier during the drought in the Sahel region during 1970-74 when famine claimed about a hundred thousand lives, the situation relating to failure of timely international realization of the tragic situation was even worse as during these four years of a prolonged drought, there was actually a net movement of food away from the region to more paying markets.

Hence there is a clear need for evidence-based realization of seriousness of hunger and famine conditions. A substantially stepped up relief and development effort is urgently needed with the cooperation of African governments and community organizations on the one hand and the international community on the other hand.

Bharat Dogra is Honorary Convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include Planet in Peril, A Day in 2071 and India’s Quest for Sustainable Farming and Healthy Food.


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