Millions face starvation if Horn of Africa food supplies aren't protected from climate change

UN warns climate stress from poor rainfall has made region hotter and drier, affecting crops, livestock and livelihoods

Somalis from southern Somalia carrying their belongings make their way to the new camp in southern Mogadishu's Hosh neighborhood Tuesday, July 12, 2011. Thousands of people have arrived in Mogadishu over the past two weeks seeking assistance and the number is increasing by the day, due to lack of water and food. The drought in the Horn of Africa has sparked a severe food crisis and high malnutrition rates, with parts of Kenya and Somalia experiencing pre-famine conditions, the United Nations has said. More than 10 million people are now affected in drought-stricken areas of Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia and Uganda and the situation is deteriorating. (AP Photo/Farah Abdi Warsameh) .
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If collective efforts to mitigate the impact of climate change on food supply in the Horn of Africa are not scaled up quickly and significantly, tens of millions of people will continue to face starvation, the United Nations has warned.

Climate stress from poor rainfall has made the region hotter and drier, affecting crops, livestock and livelihoods, resulting in increased levels of malnutrition and food insecurity.

“There is a rise in the understanding that climate change is a factor in life and it needs to be dealt with,” Erika Joergensen, the UN World Food Programme’s Regional Director for East Africa said in Abu Dhabi on Wednesday.

An area, which spans the countries including Ethiopia, Somalia, Kenya and Uganda, encompass some 13.7 million people facing a food crisis after eight years of drought.

It is Ms Joergensen’s second year there now and “what I notice is, yes so many challenges; you have climate change, you have conflict, you have migration you have all these things but the dynamics of it, the people’s ability to invent and determination to survive and to invest what little they have in a productive manner has really struck me”.

The programme’s efforts to address hunger put its food organisation at the nexus of trade, security, transport, climate, health in the areas in which it operates, giving the WFP an unique vantage point to advocate for the most vulnerable.

“Poor people are not given many choices and they’re not having many alternatives in their lives so whatever they are given they will make the best of it, they are not asking for a lot but when they get something they want to take it and make the best of it. But they need the support of their politicians, they need the support of good governance and of social safety nets that can help raise them and get them out of these fragile situations they are in. Climate change is certainly not helping,” said Ms Joergensen.

However, tackling food security is far more complex than just learning to live with floods and droughts, the issues are there “from soil to plate”, ranging from diversification of the types of crops grown to the business of the food supply system globally.

In Ethiopia and Kenya, the WFP’s ability to take a step back recently and let their governments take the lead – a measure of success – has been driven by “governance and a determination among the decision makers to prioritise food security and the wellbeing of their citizens that takes it on,” she said.

Politics are always a factor. Elections in Somalia, Burundi and Ethiopia coming up next year can change the dynamics, for example, she said.

“That’s one thing, the other thing is that climate change has come to stay. If we don’t actively do something about it and really scale up our interventions then we are in trouble, people are in trouble. That takes commitment from our donors including GCC countries.”

Even with the WFP’s funding at a record $7.2 billion last year – the US being the largest contributor at about $2.5bn, the UAE in sixth place with $226 million and now fifth so far this year with $270 million – there continues to be a significant shortfall. Some $270m for the Horn of Africa region alone. This year so far donors are giving more than they did in 2018.

“There is also a realisation that hunger is destabilising societies and nobody wants that. We don’t want to have an unstable Horn of Africa which is haunted by conflict, destabilisation, migration and displacement. Nobody wants that,” she said.

Non-state actors, such as extremist groups like Al Shabab, are also a factor.

“If you have hunger you foster terrorism. Hungry people will do anything to feed their families. Even if that means to sign up for a non-state actor, then that is happening. So, if you create stability for people, most people want stability and peace. They want to get on with their lives.”

Stability can be a powerful response if it is an option, said Ms Joergensen.

“If you create an environment where people can have their livelihoods and can fend for themselves, they will stay.”

Increasingly the WFP wants to build resilience and stability, which requires the programme to work with partners like the UAE beyond just funding.

“Emergencies are of course different. If you have a large scale emergency, a tsunami or earthquake, a war, that’s different, that’s [about] saving lives but if you have a slow onset or a destabilised structure then creating smart farming solutions, creating livelihoods, giving food, cash possibilities, stabilising the markets, keeping the shops open, even in a drought, that is what helps.”

The Programme buys food locally from farmers as well as working with retailers.

“We raised and spent $1.4bn last year just in my region, that’s a lot of money. For the smallholders if we can create predictability for them that’s one thing, that they know they have a buyer, they can plan and they can invest. What we also force them to do which is very important; we force them to grow quality grains because we don’t buy bad grains. They have to reach a certain standard and that forces them to produce quality grains. It is a win-win situation,” Ms Joergensen said.

Data is becoming more important for what the WFP and it is collecting it on the ground in the countries in which it operates.

“It helps us understand vulnerabilities. Let’s say [in] Somalia we need to understand where are the vulnerable people living and where are those geographical areas that are particularly vulnerable. That helps us design a more targeted response.”

Other technology being utilised include biometric registration of beneficiaries, she said.

“In South Sudan, by the end of this year we will have registered 3 million people. So, they are in our system with their biometrics and that means the targeting is already done. We know where these people are, we know who they are and we know if they are eligible for the assistance we can give them.”

Ms Joergensen spoke to The National after a roundtable discussion the WFP organised in the capital to highlight the need for innovation to tackle the threat to food security as a result of climate change.

The session brought together a number of representatives of key institutions in the sector such as the UAE Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Co-operation, the European Union, the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture, International Humanitarian City and Dubai Cares.