From Haiti to Syria, some 155 million people in 55 countries most dependent on humanitarian aid have been classified as being in “crisis” – meaning in urgent need of food – an increase of 20 million since 2019, according to the report released Wednesday.
The report – based on a study organized by the Global Network Against Food Crises, a partnership between the European Union, the Food and Agriculture Organization and the United Nations World Food Program – attributed three main factors the worsening situation: conflicts, economic factors linked to the COVID pandemic and climate change.
“It’s a toxic combination,” Luca Russo, senior emergency and rehabilitation officer at the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and one of the report’s co-authors, told Al Jazeera. .
Of the 155 million people in crisis, Russo said 28 million were close to starvation. He added that the situation could deteriorate in a matter of weeks.
“We cannot wait for a declaration of famine to act,” he said, urging the international community to provide more assistance to countries most at risk, which receive 97% of external humanitarian aid.
The authors of the report rated the level of food insecurity in each of the 55 countries on a scale of 1 to 5 – 1, meaning that households are able to meet basic food needs and 5 is a level of disaster or famine requiring urgent attention.
Conflict-triggered, exacerbated by COVID-19 and climate change
Those most affected by food insecurity live in countries of conflict or recent conflict – including the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria and Sudan.
“Conflict and hunger are mutually reinforcing,” wrote Antonio Guterres, UN Secretary General, in the report’s foreword.
“We must fight hunger and conflict together to resolve either… conflict forces people to leave their homes, land and jobs. It disrupts agriculture and trade, reduces access to vital resources like water and electricity, leading to hunger and famine. “
More than 40 million people in 17 countries said economic shocks were the main driver of food insecurity, up from 24 million people in eight countries in 2019.
In Syria, an astonishing 60 percent of the population – 12.4 million people – is now food insecure.
In addition to the ongoing conflict, food prices have skyrocketed since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to UN figures, the cost of basic commodities – including vegetables, bread, oil and sugar – increased by almost 240 percent from 2019 to 2020. During the same period, around half of the Syrian population said they had lost one or more sources of income due to the economic downturn linked to the pandemic.
As many economies around the world rebound, the situation has triggered a bottleneck in commodity supply chains, causing food prices to soar. As food purchases consume a larger share of the budget of low-income households, the world’s poorest are the most affected by price increases.
« [The pandemic] is an aggravating factor that has seriously exacerbated the crisis in Syria and other countries, ”Rob Vos, director of markets, trade and institutions at the International Food Policy Research Institute, told Al Jazeera.
Extreme weather events have been a third factor in the increase in food insecurity.
In Central America, several Category 4 hurricanes affected more than 8.3 million people, causing widespread damage to crops and infrastructure. With the destruction of the pantries of thousands of people, families were forced to shop in local markets at a time when food prices were already rising.
The DRC has been hit by the three main driving factors, creating a disastrous 40% increase in food insecurity – from 16 million in 2019 to nearly 22 million in 2020.
“It is currently the biggest humanitarian crisis in the world,” Russo told Al Jazeera.
More than 4.5 million people in the DRC have been displaced since the outbreak of internal conflict in 2016, making it the country with the highest number of internally displaced people in Africa. This, combined with a series of Ebola outbreaks, the last of which in September 2020, has placed the country in a particularly vulnerable situation when it comes to food insecurity. The Ebola outbreak was declared over earlier this week.
Women and children at additional risk
Women and children, in particular, are particularly vulnerable to malnutrition, the report says.
Some 7.2 million children living in the 10 countries most affected by the food crisis had excessively low body weights. Another 31.9 million children suffered from stunted growth due to malnutrition.
In Yemen, at war since 2014, the UN estimates that 400,000 children under the age of five could die this year only if no immediate action is taken.
The report’s authors call on the international community to step up its humanitarian response to the 55 countries described in the report, which are heavily dependent on global aid.
Funding cuts linked to the COVID pandemic have been listed as another reason for the rapidly declining situation in countries most dependent on humanitarian aid.