What explains the occurrence of famines in the modern 'interconnected world'? In Jean Dreze's words, "War is one of the last bastions of famine in the contemporary world". Famines in the twentieth century occurred even in the absence of armed conflict because public assistance systems were poorly developed at that time. However, in the modern world, it is possible to prevent famines quite easily in peace time because of the massive improvements in transportation and infrastructure. In the current famines also conflict is the main offender, abetted by drought, climate change, poverty, and the existing vulnerability of the people in those regions.
In Nigeria, the insurgency by Boko Haram has led to the displacement of millions of people and completely disrupted the markets and food availability in the region. Barely six years after the famine in Somalia which killed more than a quarter of a million persons, the country is threatened by another famine. Poor rains and extended spells of drought have devastated rural livelihoods. The ongoing conflict between Al Shabab and the Somali government is also denying aid to Somalians. In South Sudan, the people are affected by multiple crises: armed conflict, climatic shocks, economic decline, disease, and inter-communal violence. Conflict has also prevented farmers from planting or harvesting their crops and also disrupted the food supply pipeline from Uganda dysfunctional. About 3.4 million South Sudanese are displaced by fighting including almost 200,000 who have fled the country since January. However, Yemen may be regarded as the worst case. An estimated 17 million people in Yemen are suffering from 'emergency' levels of food insecurity. Taiz and Al Hudaydah, the main food producing regions of the country, have been the focus of intense violence which has caused extensive losses in agricultural production. The ongoing bombing by Saudi Arabia, with help from United States, has completely disrupted the supply and distribution of food. Insecurity in the region is also inhibiting the ability of international agencies to help those affected because transporting big amounts of humanitarian supplies to remote areas is the biggest challenge at a time when critical infrastructure is being destroyed by bombing.
Although timely and effective response to the famines can save many lives, the humanitarian aid budgets of most developed countries, are not in line with current needs. The dramatic cuts in humanitarian aid budget in United States, a key provider of international assistance, have made the situation worse. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA), US$ 5.6 billion will be required to avert a catastrophe in the four famine affected countries. So far, the humanitarian response plans have only received 13.9% of the required funding.
Given the enormity of the food crisis that the world is facing today, the G20 countries must come together to save millions of lives in Africa and the Arab peninsula. The fight against famines has already been incorporated in the G20 Agenda and the Berlin Charter, one of the conference's key elements, calls upon G20 countries to "take concerted political and humanitarian actions to end the food crisis situations in East Africa, the Horn of Africa and other locations of acute suffering". While such initial efforts are welcome, G20 countries must commit to address the funding gap that the UN agencies are facing currently. Secondly, it is important to acknowledge the fact that without an end to conflict, all humanitarian assistance will be meaningless. Therefore, the international community must assume responsibility and play a positive role in ending the conflict in each of these countries.
Famine response also requires a more long term approach than just emergency relief. Therefore, long term agricultural support must be an integral part of the humanitarian response to prevent the dire food security situation from worsening in each of these countries. Secondly, climate change mitigation and adaptation should feature prominently in any long term response to famines because climate induced droughts have devastated the lives of the vulnerable people in much of Africa.
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(Dr Malancha Chakrabarty is an Associate Fellow at the Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.)
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