Struggle, not local weather, is fueling resurgent starvation in Africa, research says – Watts Up With That?
After years of advances in food security, some nations are seeing sharp reversals
EARTH INSTITUTE AT COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY
PICTURE: IN SUBSAHARAN AFRICA, VIOLENT CONFLICTS ARE BEHIND INCREASED HUNGER, SAYS A NEW STUDY. HERE A FARMER IS KEEPING FOOD FOR HIS MAULE IN SOUTHWEST ETHIOPIA. FURTHER NORTH IN THE COUNTRY, STARVING SPREADS THIS YEAR IN THE FACE OF THE CIVIL WAR. Show more CREDIT: JACQUELYN TURNER, INTERNATIONAL RESEARCH INSTITUTE FOR CLIMATE AND SOCIETY
For years it seemed like the world was making progress in eliminating hunger. From 2014 the trend slowly declined and was reversed in many countries; Today, according to the UN, around 700 million people – almost 9 percent of the world’s population – go to bed hungry.
One of the hardest hit regions is sub-Saharan Africa. Here, many people reflexively blame droughts that are fueled by climate change. However, a new study examining the question in detail says it isn’t: long-term wars, not the weather, are to blame. The study, recently published in the journal Nature Food, found that while droughts routinely lead to food insecurity in Africa, their contribution to hunger has remained constant or even decreased in recent years. Instead, increasing widespread, long-term violence has displaced people, raised food prices and blocked outside food aid, which has led to a reversal.
“Colloquially, people would say it was climate-related droughts and floods because people tend to say it,” said Weston Anderson, who led the study as a postdoctoral fellow at Columbia University’s International Research Institute for Climate and Society. “But scientists have not compared the importance of drought to violence in triggering food crises in a holistic way.”
To reach their conclusions, the researchers analyzed 2009-2018 data from the Famine Early Warning System, a USAID-funded network that informs governments and aid agencies of impending or ongoing food crises in dozen of countries. The system shows that the number of people in need of emergency food aid in the monitored countries has increased from 48 million in 2015 to 113 million in 2020. The system is not designed to quantify the various factors behind the emergencies. But Anderson and his colleagues were able to tease these out for 14 of the most food-insecure countries in Africa. The nations extend in a band from Mauritania, Mali and Nigeria in the west via Sudan, Chad and other nations to Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia in the east. The study also included several countries further south, including Mozambique and Zimbabwe.
Unsurprisingly, the researchers found that intermittent, well-documented droughts were responsible for food crises in large areas. However, the overall impact of the drought did not increase during the investigation period; of everything they went under in some areas. When drought did occur, farmers usually recovered in the next planting season, within a year or so. It took livestock herders twice as long to recover because the areas they live in were more extreme and people needed time to rebuild their hard-hit herds.
Amid the usual ebb and flow of rainfall, violence is responsible for the progressive rise in hunger, the study found. Long-term conflicts, ranging from repeated terrorist attacks to open fighting between armies, have created bottlenecks year after year with no end in sight, the authors say.
This was particularly the case in northeastern Nigeria, where the Boko Haram guerrilla army has waged a relentless hit-and-run campaign against the government and much of the population for the past decade. Also in South Sudan, where a chaotic, multi-layered civil war has been raging since 2013. Sudan and Somalia have also seen warfare-induced spikes in hunger, but in those countries droughts have been the dominant factors, according to the study. In most cases, shepherds are also the most vulnerable to violence, as well as droughts, as they are more likely to live in the most vulnerable areas.
The most recent victim is Ethiopia, where hunger has skyrocketed across the country in recent years, largely due to below average rainfall. But last year, civil war broke out in the country’s Tigray region, adding to the misery. The study did not investigate this new conflict, but a recent UN report found that more than 5 million people in the region are in dire need of food aid, and many are already experiencing famine. “This grave crisis stems from the cascading effects of the conflict, including population displacement, restrictions on movement, restricted access to humanitarian aid, loss of crops and livelihoods, and dysfunctional or nonexistent markets,” said a senior UN official. In addition, the drought in Ethiopia is expected to continue this year.
The researchers looked at a third possible cause of hunger: grasshoppers. Unsurprisingly, in a few years’ time, locusts will affect food security by damaging forage and crops – but not to an extent large enough to explain the rise in hunger during the study period. (The study did not look at the unusually large waves of locusts that inundated much of East Africa in 2019-2020; these may have produced more drastic results.)
Another factor that the researchers investigated: whether the onset of drought contributed to a flare-up of violence and thus to greater hunger. One of the report’s co-authors, climatologist Richard Seager of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in Columbia, linked the dots in this regard in a much-cited 2015 study, arguing that a spark for the ongoing Syrian civil war was a multi-year drought, which has driven many people out of their land into cities. For the African countries, this does not seem to be the case, he said. The authors write: “We found no systematic association between drought and the incidence of conflict or conflict-related deaths. Conflicts can in some cases be influenced by environmental stress, but the relationship in Africa over the past few decades has been complex and contextual. “
While in some countries warfare has been the predominant cause of hunger, it does not mean that others have completely escaped the violence that can disrupt food supplies. In the past ten years, for example, a large part of Mali has been subject to repeated attacks by separatist and Islamist insurgents, who at times conquered entire cities. Since 2015, the once largely peaceful country of Burkina Faso has seen hundreds of attacks by rebels and jihadists, including a raid on a village in early June this year that killed more than 100 people.
“The general message is that if we are to predict and manage food crises, we need to watch out for conflicts, which can be very complicated – not just the more easily identifiable things like drought,” said Anderson. “Droughts have a clear beginning and a clear end. But there are all kinds of violence. And often there is no clear beginning or no clear ending. ”However, behind rising hunger in other parts of the world that the team has not investigated, the warfare is certainly most evident amid the civil war in Yemen.
The other authors on the study are Elisabeth Ilboudo-Nébie, Wolfram Schlenker, Fabien Cottier, Alex De Sherbinin, Dara Mendeloff, and Kelsey Markey, all of Columbia University; and Sonali McDermid and Kelsey Markey of New York University.
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