THE LONGER READ

Food insecurity bites in countries overwhelmed by extreme weather

For some of the world’s most fragile countries, reports Nick Ferris, even the 1.3C warming we have already experienced is proving an obstacle to sustaining one of the most fundamental factors in the survival of humanity: our food system

Monday 11 December 2023 10:29 GMT
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West Africa is suffering from a major hunger crisis
West Africa is suffering from a major hunger crisis (AP)

Limiting warming to 1.5C has repeatedly been hailed as “our north star” by Cop28 president Sultan Ahmed al-Jaber in his interactions with the press. Beyond that target, scientists warn, the world will suffer devastating, irreversible climate change.

But for some of the world’s most fragile countries, even the 1.3C warming we have already experienced is proving too much to handle in relation to one of the most fundamental factors in the survival of humanity: our food system.

Just ahead of Cop28, some 57 million people worldwide were experiencing crisis levels of acute food insecurity in locations where extreme weather is the primary driver of hunger, according to Save the Children. This is nearly double the figure of 29 million reported in 2018.

Some 1.84 billion people are currently affected by drought, according to the UN. But in addition to a lack of rain, other environmental crises, such as flooding and soil degradation related to deforestation, are contributing to the food insecurity crisis. In Somalia, heavy rain and floods have displaced an estimated 750,000 people this autumn, making it increasingly difficult for aid to reach them, straight after five failed rainy seasons had already wreaked havoc across the country.

Many of the countries whose food systems are most vulnerable to the effects of climate change are represented at Cop28, where their politicians have an opportunity to relate just how critical things are becoming back home and to outline the areas in which they need assistance from the global North.

“We need more financial resources to tackle the food insecurity challenge, as well as other environmental problems, in our country,” says Mery Yaou, director of environment at Togo’s Ministry of Environment, in an interview with The Independent.

Togo is a low-income west African nation where around 60 per cent of the population work in agriculture and some 69 per cent of rural households live below the poverty line. The country has a gross national income of just $867 (?691) per capita, limiting its capacity to address food insecurity.

The latest operational report on Togo from the World Food Programme details how food insecurity has risen 142 per cent in the past three years, driven by the Covid-19 pandemic, refugees arriving from the north, and climatic shocks, including recurring floods and drought.

“In the agricultural sector, we are promoting new means of crop irrigation and buying best practices, but we do not have the resources to effectively implement these programmes,” Yaou adds.

The struggles faced by Togo’s administrators were echoed by representatives at Cop28 from the Central African Republic (CAR), a country where 45 per cent of the country are currently food-insecure, and rising food prices mean that 65 to 75 per cent of disposable income is currently spent on food.

For years, CAR was gripped by intense sectarian violence, though it has been at peace since 2019, ever since the government signed an agreement with armed militia groups. But climate change – again in the form of torrential rain and extreme flooding – presents a major new development challenge, the IMF points out in a recent report.

The country’s delegation at Cop28 includes CAR businessman Jean Luc Andre Tete, the founder and director of Societe des Industries Agricoles Durables (SIAD) Centre Afrique, a business aiming to boost agricultural production in the country by promoting sustainable forestry practices in the agriculture sector. The company currently operates one 2,000-acre farm – but given CAR’s underdevelopment, Tete believes his company to be one of the largest private sector investors in the country outside of the mining industry.

“The challenge in CAR is to develop agriculture in the fertile, tropical south in order to feed the more climate-vulnerable north, while still protecting our portion of the Congo rainforest, which is the world’s biggest carbon sink,” says Tete in an interview with The Independent.

“Now that CAR is more politically stable, there is an immense investment opportunity in the country, because we have a completely undeveloped economy. But we need to retain our forest to protect our food system, as 60 per cent of our rain is local rain, generated by microclimates related to the rainforest.”

The food insecurity challenge faced by climate-vulnerable nations is made worse when a region is also having to deal with the direct impacts of conflict.

The Palestinian territories constitute one such area. Defined by the UN as including Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem – but represented in practice by politicians from the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank (rather than Hamas in Gaza) – it is one of the places most vulnerable to climate change, according to the UN, with temperatures rising at twice the global average.

“Palestine is a country in the Middle East that is really suffering from the impacts of extreme heat and drought,” says Hadeel Ikhmais, a climate change expert with the Palestinian Authority, speaking to The Independent in Dubai. “This is devastating to us as an agricultural country: this year, the production of olive oil was one-third of what we are used to.”

The threat from the climate has been turbocharged by the current conflict with neighbouring Israel.

“There are so many more challenges on the ground because of the occupation in the West Bank and the conflict in Gaza,” adds Ikhmais. “We have been producing reports and targets, as required by the UN, but now with the conflict in Gaza, this is all on pause. Our main ambition now at Cop28 is simply to be present.”

Burkina Faso is another, less reported, country that is suffering acutely from the dual effects of conflict and climate change. Situated in Africa’s climate-vulnerable Sahel region, it has been dealing with a growing threat from armed insurgencies since 2015 that had internally displaced more than 2 million people as of March 2023.

The country is in desperate need of aid, with just 30 per cent of the government’s humanitarian response plan for 2023 having been funded as of July 2023. Food insecurity has been such a major problem in recent years that a quarter of the country’s population is expected to require humanitarian assistance this year, and some 25 per cent of children under five are now suffering from stunted growth.

“Eighty per cent of our population works in agriculture, so having an outcome at Cop28 that addresses food insecurity and agricultural resilience is vital for us,” says Pamoussa Ouedrago, the deputy head of Burkina Faso’s Cop28 delegation, in an interview with The Independent.

“Food is crucial for everything that humanity does. This is something we only know too well in our country, which is suffering from terrible drought and land degradation,” he adds. “Poverty and malnutrition are terrible problems for us, but we cannot address them without addressing problems in the agricultural sector.”

In the face of this growing clamour of voices calling for more action on food insecurity, Cop28 president the UAE has made addressing the problem a key priority for this year’s climate conference.

A new document, the Emirates Declaration on Sustainable Agriculture, Resilient Food Systems and Climate Action, has been signed by 134 countries, representing 5.7 billion people, and by 500 million farmers. It includes plans to scale up adaptation and resilience efforts for farmers, as well as action to transform production practices through addressing soil health, food waste and biodiversity loss.

The final document has largely been well received by NGOs.

Others, however, warn that for the time being it remains simply a statement of intent – and that significant work is required to translate it into effective action.

“Many promising agricultural innovations already exist to address the challenges, from malnutrition to rural poverty,” says Aditi Mukherji, a director of climate change adaptation and mitigation at CGIAR, a food security research organisation.

“But ensuring they reach all those who need them requires a substantial increase in political will and funding. CGIAR stands ready to work with governments willing to lead this transformation and unlock the full potential of science and innovation.”

Paul Walton, director of NGO the Africa Europe Foundation, tells The Independent that while he believes the increased prominence of food security as an issue at Cop28 is a “really positive step”, there remains work to be done.

“There is lots of broad intent about how to address food insecurity, but we still lack a coherent strategy for how to achieve this, which is significant as there are a huge amount of competing views as to how to address the problem,” he says.

“There is also still a tendency for different parts of the conference to be speaking in silos: food systems, adaptation, finance and health are not isolated problems, and they need to be addressed in a more integrated way.”

In 2023, the climate crisis has hit the headlines more than ever as its impacts have become more pronounced, and warnings grow ever louder. But on food specifically, stories of drought and famine are rarer than they have been in decades past, due to the fact that both response systems and the provision of food aid have significantly improved in recent years.

But the reality is that global hunger continues to affect 700 million people worldwide, according to the UN, and this is reflected in the fact that the provision of food aid has increased tenfold in just two decades.

For now, the world’s wealthy nations can largely fill the gap if harvests fail in climate-vulnerable nations – but if the climate keeps changing at its current rate, and the problem of food insecurity worsens, scientific models show us that such a system of management will eventually fail.

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