When people are fighting, they are not farming

Hawa Kalie was displaced twice in seven months. Conflict and climate change are making it harder for people in Lake Chad to find a safe place where food is not a constant worry. Photo: WFP/Maria Gallar

NASHVILLE, TN –Relief workers in India, Central America, and Yemen distribute food staples to the world’s poorest and hungriest people. The United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) operates in 88 countries and feeds 100 million people every year.

“We respond first to natural disasters,” said Steve Taravella, senior spokesperson at UN World Food Programme. Secondly, the WFP delivers food to warzones like South Sudan, Syria, and Burkina Faso.

“Violence and conflict is the single biggest driver of hunger right now,” he said.

Ploughing the field in Manthralaya, Andhra Pradesh. Photo by Ananth BS

Aid workers had hoped to end famine in the world by 2030 but Taravella said hunger has been rising in undeveloped countries for several years. Climate disasters are the second leading cause of food insecurity.

“When roads are bombed and food can’t reach people who need food the U.N. steps in,” Taravella said. Disrupting normal food distribution channels is what hurricanes and civil wars have in common.

Sometimes fighting means trucks carrying food can’t reach hungry people; planes carrying cooking oil can’t land; people can’t venture out to seek food; and aid workers can’t go out to distribute it.

About 19,000 WFP staffers with an 8.5 billion budget, 5,000 trucks, and 20 cargo ships deliver flour, rice, lentils, cooking oil, and salt to war zones like South Sudan. They respond to typhoons in the Philippines, earthquakes in Haiti, and hurricanes in Central America.

WFP gets food to communities that are devastated and lack the resources to recover without international help. Taravella said climate crisis is affecting countries in different ways. Some places face drought; others more flooding; some regions, like Central America, are experiencing both.

“Conflict, climate, and COVID have pushed the world closer to famine in a number of countries,” Taravella said.  In 2020 WFP fed 114 million people, the largest number in its 60-year history. He said their caseload would likely increase to 130 million this year.

There are a number of ongoing WFP programs in many food insecure countries in addition to WFP’s emergency disaster response.

“We provide meals in the classroom to students in about 50 countries, very often the only meal they get in a day. We help pregnant women and new mothers understand nutrition. We help communities become more resilient to climate so they can weather future disasters with less suffering. We help small farmers find markets for their produce,” he said.

WFP’s 2020 budget was 7.8 billion, all of it from donations. This year WFP needs 13.5 billion, a sign of the times when 135 million people don’t know where their next meal is coming from. Their numbers have doubled because of the pandemic. The economic fallout has laid off workers, who no longer can send remittances back home, so people are going hungry.

The WFP is appealing to the world’s wealthiest people to make up the shortfall. “Ten trillion dollars in global wealth is held by 2200 people, all billionaires,” Taravella said. WFP needs to raise $5.7 billion.

Nearly one in three Indian people face moderate to severe food insecurity, according to Parul Sachdeva, country advisor for Give2Asia. She is based in New Delhi.

Steve Taravella (L) is senior spokesperson at UN World Food Programme. Parul Sachdeva (R), is country advisor for Give2Asia. She is based in New Delhi, India.

“With a population of 1.3 billion people, India is the country with the largest population of food insecure people,” Sachdeva said.

India was already a food-stressed country when the pandemic hit last year. Thousands of farmers were unable to harvest their crops in April. Traders could not reach rural communities due to the lockdown and that affected the food supply chain and the incomes of at least 100 million people.

In the cities, about 139 million informal workers lost their jobs and had to return home to their rural villages. Without income, thousands just walked home. Restrictions were eased in recent months but when many of those informal workers returned to the cities, they found no jobs.

“Eight in ten are eating less food than before the pandemic. So there is less food on the plate, we know that,” Sachdeva said. More than a third of working families took out loans during the lockdown and now 8 out of 10 report no money to pay next month’s rent.

“The economic slowdown post pandemic has hit people really hard,” she said.

In March 2020 the Indian government created a $22.6 billion relief program that included food staples and small cash payments of about $7. Sachdeva said Indian NGOs responded on a massive scale providing cooked meals, dry rations, and hygiene kits.

One non-profit, SEEDS, is providing food relief to families who have lost incomes due to the pandemic. Another non-profit provided seeds to small farmers who could no longer care for their land or sell produce during the lockdown and did not have money to buy seeds for the next season.

Annabel Symington is UN spokeswoman for the World Food Programme in Yemen.

Yemen is the world’s worst humanitarian crisis. Six years of war between ethnic Houthis in the South and the Saudi-supported government in the North has destroyed the country. One of the world’s oldest societies, the Yemeni people are caught in the middle of a proxy war between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

“War has devastated infrastructure. It has destroyed agricultural land. It’s overloaded government services and it’s left the health system on its knees,” said Annabel Symington, UN spokeswoman for the WFP in Yemen.

Symington said about 4 million people have been displaced by the fighting. They are internal refugees, fleeing the conflict, often crossing line of control to get to safety. The country’s total population is about 30 million.

“Many people have been displaced multiple times as the front lines have moved. Each time life is getting harder,” she said.
She said the economy is near the breaking point. Food prices are on average 140 times higher than pre-war. The currency is incredibly volatile and has plummeted in value since the war began. In effect, there are two currencies in Yemen. When you cross a control line, you lose money in the currency exchange. Fuel prices are extremely high; truckers buy it on the black market and that raises the cost of goods.

On Monday, UN Secretary-General António Guterres described the international response to last week’s high-level pledging conference on Yemen as “disappointing”. Donors pledged $1.7 billion, less than half of the $3.8 billion they expected. “Cutting aid is a death sentence,” Guterres said.

UN Secretary-General António Guterres

Yemen’s health system is barely functioning; half the children under five are facing acute malnutrition and 400,000 could die without urgent treatment. More than a million Yemeni mothers are also malnourished.

“Every ten minutes, a child dies a needless death from diseases,” Guterres lamented. “And every day, Yemeni children are killed or maimed in the conflict.”

This story was brought to you by the Blue Cross Foundation of California and Ethnic Media Services.