Increasing vulnerability to extreme weather events, climate change, economic crisis and conflict have 19 countries facing either “alarming” or “extremely alarming” hunger levels, says the Global Hunger Index, to be launched today (16 October) at the European Parliament.
South Asia has the worst regional hunger levels, followed by Sub-Saharan Africa, but starvation and insufficient nutrition is most acute in Burundi, Eritrea and Comoros, according to the 8th Global Hunger Index (GHI) by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).
The study, carried out with German world hunger group Welthungerhilfe and Irish poverty NGO Concern, also lists Sudan, Chad, Yemen and Ethiopia as suffering from very high levels of hunger, painting a picture of continued struggle in the Sahel and the Horn of Africa.
“2.6 billion people have to live on less than two dollars a day. For them a sick family member, a single drought or the job loss of someone working abroad is a major crisis,” said Welthungerhilfe Chair Bärbel Dieckmann.
“As a consequence a child can no longer afford to go to school, the family diet is reduced to often one meal a day or livestock needs to be sold. These people have simply no coping mechanisms left to react to a crisis,” Dieckmann said.
The plight of the population of Eritrea, a nation on the Horn of Africa which suffers frequent food crises due to extreme weather and conflict, gained significant prominence in Europe this month, when a boat carrying hundreds of mostly Eritrean refugees sank near the Italian island of Lampedusa. Many Ethiopians also perished.
The UN’s Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs says Eritrea “has suffered greatly from the negative effects of climate variability” since 2000, and now suffers drought every three years.
Communities have a certain level of resistance to such events but if they get too bad, people can make extreme choices, says Connell Foley, strategy and advocacy director of Concern.
“Depending on the level of shock people will respond differently. People can absorb problems to a certain extent. But with longer droughts or conflict … people may need to change their lives completely or migrate for work,” Foley told EurActiv.
“This can be negative. Large migration as a strategy is negative. That’s an example of what can happen, people taking big risks, people making big changes because they can’t cope.”
Many countries in the Sahel and Horn also fall into a never-ending cycle of conflict causing poor access to food and water, which in turn fuels further conflict over resources.
“An underlying cause of hunger is poor food production, which is affected by conflict,” Foley said. “It is a vicious cycle.”
Building resilience, the theme of this year’s GHI, into people’s way of life in the Sahel and Horn will help ensure better resistance to the inevitable crises that come with living in such volatile regions, the report says.
“Resilience is improving agricultural production, diversifying crops, providing safe and sustainable water, and sanitation, and better high quality health and nutrition services,” Foley said.
In the chronically food insecure district of Dessie Zuria in Ethiopia’s Amhara region, stunting, or reduced growth, affects 54% of people, higher than the national average of 44%.
Many people in Dessie Zuria rely on social handouts for survival. NGOs like Concern are active in the region, attempting to bolster emergency response and strengthen the healthcare system. The Irish NGO says it aligns its approach with the Ethiopian government’s strategies.
“This integrated approach has helped strengthen vulnerable communities’ adaptive capacity to manage both short-term shocks and stresses that lead to short-term food and nutrition insecurity and long-term trends and changes, such as environmental degradation that result in chronic hunger and malnutrition,” the GHI says.
The EU is also very active in the Horn of Africa, with European Parliament having agreed earlier this year to a strategy to tackle the region's security and humanitarian troubles.
Between 2011 and 2012, East Africa suffered severe drought and food shortages, said to be “the worst in 60 years”.
Concern says that resilience measures helped to buffer the Moyale district in northern Kenya from the crisis. Moyale’s severe acute malnutrition rates fell by 50% in early 2011 despite a threefold rise in the surrounding areas.
“[Resilience strategies] stopped people going so hungry so it showed it was effective on the ground, in the context of rising levels elsewhere because of major food shortages in that region after three to five years of drought,” Foley said.
Foley also called for political coherence between development aid and crisis response from aid actors, including the European Union, with better risk analysis and disaster proofing, to tackle hunger in the world’s most volatile regions.
“Funding for resistance would come from development funding rather than crisis funding. But flexibility of funding is also important,” he said.
“Adopting a resilience lens is challenging. We need to build consensus on what it means and on that basis adopt programs and policies that bridge the relief and development sectors,” said IFPRI research fellow Derek Headey.
Concern CEO Dominic MacSorley said: “We must focus on those living in extreme poverty, learn the lessons of the past and be clear what measures are needed to enable the very poorest to become more resilient in the longer term.”