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18 Sep, 2020

New wave of famine could sweep the globe, overwhelming nations already weakened by years of conflict, warn UN officials


United Nations, 18 September 2020,  (UN News) – The global hunger crisis caused by conflict – and now compounded by COVID-19 – is moving into a dangerous phase, the head of the UN World Food Programme (WFP) said on Thursday, stressing that without resources, a wave of famine could sweep the globe, overwhelming nations already weakened by years of instability. 

“This fight…is far, far, far from over,” said WFP Executive Director David Beasley, briefing the Security Council during a virtual debate on conflict-induced hunger.   

UNICEF/Alessio Romenzi, Tents and makeshift shelters at an IDP camp in Yemen. Years of conflict has left millions at crisis levels of hunger, with some facing starvation due to COVID.

Mr. Beasley recalled his April briefing to the 15-member Council, where he warned that the world was on the verge of a hunger pandemic. Heeding the warning, donors and countries – large and small – took extraordinary measures to save people’s lives, spending $17 trillion in fiscal stimulus packages.   

WFP, too, is going all out to reach 138 million people this year, the biggest scale-up in the agency’s history, he said, noting that 85 million people have been reached so far. However, challenges remain. 

“We’re doing just about all we can do to stop the dam from bursting. But, without the resources we need, a wave of hunger and famine still threatens to sweep across the globe,” said the WFP Executive Director. 

Recalling Security Council resolution 2417 (2018) that called for effective early warning systems, Mr. Beasley said “I’m here to sound that alarm … the threat of famine is looming yet again.” 

2021 a ‘make or break’ year 

Acknowledging that governments reserves are depleting, he said 2021 will be a make or break year.  “I urge you: do not walk away from our commitment to humanitarian assistance. Do not turn your backs on the world’s hungry.” 

He underscored the critical importance of balancing sensible measures to contain COVID-19, with others to keep borders open and trade flows moving. It is vital to guard against unintended consequences that can hit the poorest the hardest. 

Describing conditions in Africa as “a matter of life and death”, he cited calculations by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine that for every COVID-19 death prevented, 80 children may die from a lack of routine vaccination. 

Crisis levels of hunger in Africa, Middle East 

An upsurge in violence, combined with the effects of COVID in the Democratic Republic of the Congo has sent the 15.5 million people already facing crisis levels of food insecurity skyrocketing to 22 million.  

In northeast Nigeria, meanwhile, 4.3 million people are food insecure, an increase of 600,000.  In Burkina Faso, where fighting is taking deeper root, the number of people facing crisis levels of hunger tripled to 3.3 million people, as COVID-19 compounds displacement, security and access problems. 

In Yemen, 20 million people are in crisis, with another 3 million potentially facing starvation due to coronavirus. Because of funding cuts, 8.5 million beneficiaries only receive WFP assistance every other month. 

“We’ll be forced cut rations for the remaining 4.4 million by December if resources do not increase,” stressed Mr. Beasley. “The world needs to open up its eyes to the Yemeni people before famine takes hold.” 

There are no more excuses for failing to act swiftly and decisively, he said.  While peace agreements like that in South Sudan offer hope, it is time for the private sector to step up.  

There are 2,000 billionaires in the world with a collective net worth of $8 trillion and he called them off the side-lines.  WFP needs $4.9 billion for one year to keep 30 million people from dying.  “Humanity is facing the greatest crisis any of us have seen in our lifetimes.” 

Extreme poverty rising, humanitarian system overwhelmed 

UN Emergency Relief Coordinator Mark Lowcock said the human and economic cost of conflict is astronomical: an estimated 40 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) in the 10 most affected countries.   

While 135 million people faced acute food insecurity before COVID-19, that number is expected to almost double this year, to 270 million people. The World Bank expects the number of people in extreme poverty to rise for the first time since the 1990s.

In the Sahel, violence has driven more than 1 million people from their homes and lands, Mr. Lowcock said, most of whom depend on agriculture. In total, 14 million people are experiencing crisis or emergency levels of food insecurity – the highest figures for a decade. 

The humanitarian system is doing its utmost, but it is in danger of being overwhelmed by the scale of the needs.  “That will get worse in the absence of a lot more financial help,” he stressed. 

Mr. Lowcock, also the UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs, called on the Security Council to press for peaceful negotiated political solutions to end conflicts, ensure parties respect international humanitarian law, and mitigate the economic impact of conflict by mobilizing international financial institutions.  

Most importantly, he called for scaling up support for humanitarian operations. “History proves that even in the midst of conflict, famine can be prevented.”  

A plea for scaled up support 

Also briefing the Council, Qu Dongyu, Director-General of the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), outlined countries and crisis situations where conflict and instability, now also exacerbated by COVID-19, are driving millions into more serious hunger and acute food insecurity.  

“This is particularly visible in areas where conflict and other factors such as economic turbulence, and extreme weather, are already driving people into poverty and hunger,” he said

Globally, the hardest hit include the urban poor, informal workers and pastoral communities as well as people who are already vulnerable – children, women, the elderly, the sick, and persons with disabilities.   

“We need first and fast aid to stop hunger,” stressed Mr. Qu, adding that without prevention, political willingness and collective action, forecasts for food security continue to worsen. 

Humanitarian-development-peace actions must be well coordinated and complementary. They must be mutually reinforcing across global, regional, national and local levels, he said. 

For its part, the Security Council can help stem COVID-19 induced acute food insecurity by advancing dialogue towards political solutions that end violence.   

“This would allow us to scale up urgent life and livelihood-saving operations,” assured the head of FAO.