Hunger and malnutrition remain as much a threat to the world’s health as any disease. Despite progress toward food and nutrition security over the past 20 years, one billion people still do not have enough to eat.
A report by the International Federation of Red Cross and the International Food Policy Research Institute has found urgent action is needed to reduce the vulnerability of people around the world to hunger and deficiencies in essential vitamins and minerals. This research has confirmed certain populations – including the landless and small landholders, working poor, people displaced by conflict, pregnant women, children and the elderly – are particularly at risk to food insecurity.
These communities have limited capacity to respond to external shocks. So when faced with armed conflict, natural disasters or even an increase in food prices their circumstances can quickly deteriorate into severe hunger and malnutrition. Malnutrition in turn can create a vicious cycle. It reduces the capacity of adults to work and maintain their livelihoods, which exacerbates the problem, while also impeding cognitive and physical development in children, with repercussions for the rest of their lives.
Given more than half the world’s hungry are located in the Asia-Pacific it would be a mistake to label food insecurity an African problem. Nonetheless, we can see these issues unfolding right now in the Sahel region of Western Africa.
The Sahel region is an arid strip of land just below the Sahara desert that includes parts of Niger, Mauritania, Chad, Burkina Faso, Mali and Senegal. A combination of seemingly unremarkable phenomena, specifically below average grain harvests and insect infestations are combining with high grain prices to put millions of lives at risk across all these countries. The challenges have been exacerbated by recent political instability and conflict in Mali.
Current estimates are more than 15.6 million people face severe food shortages and at least one million children will suffer from severe malnutrition in coming weeks.
For a community with a basic safety net, political stability and where hunger is not normally a problem, the shocks faced by the people of the Sahel region would not be enough to create such a catastrophic threat. However, the underlying vulnerability of many people in this region has meant the poor harvest and price rises have been enough to tip millions over the edge.
Humanitarian organisations like Red Cross are currently working in the Sahel region to provide emergency food supplies and health care. Most importantly we are also working to strengthen communities’ capacity to respond to future threats by improving irrigation and farming techniques, building seed banks, establishing communal gardens and educating people on health, sanitation and hygiene practices.
In Burkina Faso, Red Cross has set up community gardens where local women’s groups grow vegetables they can use to feed their own families or sell. In Mauritania, Red Cross is training local volunteers to identify the early signs of malnutrition in their community and provide basic healthcare and nutrition advice.
To prevent hundreds of millions of people going to bed hungry every night and reduce the risk of future food shortages we need more of these sorts of programs and we need them on an ongoing basis.
It is widely recognised prevention is better than cure and that investments in risk reduction generate one of the highest rates of return in the development sector. However, accessing sufficient resources to support risk reduction continues to be a challenge. In 2010, only 3 per cent of the total expenditure on overseas humanitarian aid for disasters was spent on preparedness.
It is clear that conflict, natural disasters, extreme weather and market volatility are here to stay. Moreover, trends such as population growth, increasing urbanisation, environmental degradation and climate change are bound to aggravate the consequences of external shocks on vulnerable communities. We cannot do much to stop the external threats but we can build the capacity of communities to bounce back from them.
Investments are needed to enhance agricultural productivity, provide a basic safety net for the world’s poorest people especially women and children, and develop and act on early warning systems for food and nutrition shortages. For donors and international actors there is an imperative to understand the importance of long-term solutions that build on and develop local capabilities, rather than trailing communities from crisis to crisis with short-term aid.
The problems are complex but solutions are within reach. This latest research and decades of practice in disaster response and recovery by Red Cross has shown steps can be taken to avert catastrophes like the emerging food crisis in the Sahel region. We can break the cycle of hunger: the time for action is now.
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