Every year for the last three years, persistent conflict, climate shocks and economic instability have driven more than 100 million people around the world into crisis-levels acute hunger or worse.
Last year, that number was 113 million people in 53 countries, according to the UN’s latest Global Report on Food Crises, published last week. That’s the same magnitude as if all of the UK and Spain were in urgent need of food, nutrition and livelihoods assistance.
Of those in need last year, more than half were in 33 African countries, and two-thirds (or 72 million) were in just eight conflict-ridden countries. In order of severity, they were: Yemen, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Syria, Sudan, South Sudan and Nigeria. These countries are expected to remain among the world’s worst food crises in 2019, with large portions of their populations at risk of falling into the “emergency” phase of food insecurity.
According to the classification system used by the international community, “emergency-levels” of food insecurity are more severe than “crisis-levels.” But “catastrophe-levels” are the worst. When at least 20 percent of the population in an area faces catastrophe-levels of hunger, famine is declared. In such cases – as in areas of South Sudan in 2017 – urgent action is required to “prevent widespread death and total collapse of livelihoods.”
Last year, UN officials warned that Yemen was on the brink of the “worst famine in 100 years” if the war did not subside. Although famine was not officially declared, the report says that 65,000 people still faced catastrophe-levels of extreme hunger and loss of livelihoods – and that was with humanitarian food assistance. Had that aid not been available, the UN estimates the number would have been about 238,000.
When the UN first began to publish the annual Global Report on Food Crises in 2016, the number of people who faced crisis-levels of acute hunger or worse was 108 million in 48 countries. In 2017, that number jumped up to 124 million in 51 countries, mostly because conflict or insecurity intensified in South Sudan, Yemen, north Nigeria, the DRC and Myanmar. Unrelenting drought also worsened food insecurity in a number of African countries.
Compared to 2017, the number of people facing acute hunger actually decreased slightly in 2018. The report attributes this dip to less severe climate shocks in some areas and better harvests and humanitarian aid in others (like Nigeria). However, the number of people facing at minimum crisis-levels of food insecurity remained the same or grew in 17 countries, with the biggest increases occurring in Afghanistan, the DRC, Sudan and Zambia.
Despite the modest improvement globally from 2017 to 2018, the report says that an additional 143 million people in 2018 were living on the edge of acute hunger. If faced with any shock or stressor, it warned, those 143 million people would be at risk of being pushed into crisis-levels of hunger or worse.
Over the last decade, prolonged conflicts and insecurity as well as more severe and frequent climate shocks have driven up humanitarian assistance and spending needs by about 127 percent. About 40 percent of that, the report says, have been for food and agriculture needs. These drivers of food insecurity will persist in 2019. And if the political and economic crisis in Venezuela doesn’t let up, we can expect the number of displaced people, refugees and migrants from that crisis to add to the burden significantly.
For years now, the UN has said that as crises become more protracted and increasingly political with no clear solution, humanitarian responses are no longer sufficient on their own. The report echoes this and says their findings “clearly underscore” the need for the humanitarian and development sectors to work together for more sustainable long-term answers to food insecurity. In some cases, this may include investing in conflict prevention and peacebuilding as well.
Without such efforts, the root causes of hunger will continue unchecked, the report warns, and hundreds of millions of lives will be on the line.