UN struggles to ship aid despite increased need caused by climate shifts
Residents negotiate the floodwaters in Rizal province, east of Manila.
In the Philippines, people clung to the roofs of their houses as gushing rivulets of flood water carried away their worldly goods. In drought-stricken Kenya, nomadic pastureland has turned to dust, animals are dying and destitute herders go hungry.
In the stormy 21st century, natural disasters have escalated dramatically along with global warming, spreading not only death, but starvation in their wake.
Yet even as climate change makes the world a hungrier place, the efforts of agencies that work to alleviate hunger are hampered by mounting violence, and the backlash to the worst economic downturn in half a century.
This week, the office of the UN’s World Food Program – the main supplier of nutrition to needy countries – was hit by a suicide bomber in Pakistan, killing five of its staff and wounding others. A sign, officials say, of the increasing danger faced by international agencies.
"Humanitarian workers used to feel protected by the UN flag," said Henk-Jan Brinkman, a senior adviser to the World Food Program, in a phone interview from Montreal. "But after the 2003 bombing (of UN headquarters) in Baghdad, we realized that’s no longer the case."
In Pakistan, the program has struggled to supply food to 2 million people displaced by battles in the Swat Valley. But they are also facing natural disaster emergencies in countries from Southeast Asia to sub-Saharan Africa.
In one of the latest, southern India has emerged from a severe drought, to be deluged by flooding rains that have displaced more than 2 million people and swamped millions of acres of crop land.
Those disasters, and the simmering conflicts in Africa and Asia, have increased the need for food and funds – the WFP has only $2.6 billion (U.S.) of the $6.7 billion it budgeted for this year – while the tide of human misery rises.
High food prices add to the problem, forcing many over the edge from malnutrition to starvation.
The grim outlook for hungry people was the focus of an international conference on global food security this week at McGill University. It looked at the growing gap between food needs and agricultural production, as the financial crisis aggravates problems of farmers who have too little money to plant their crops, and lack access to credit.
The combination of environmental and economic factors has yielded dire results. The number of malnourished people rose by 40 million last year, while 1 billion people get less than adequate daily calories, and more than 2 billion go without vital micronutrients that affect health and growth.
And, says Brinkman, that is unlikely to reverse any time soon as catastrophic weather pounds people already suffering from hunger.
"You can’t say that one event is caused by global warming. But data over decades shows a fourfold increase in natural disasters since the 1970s."
That is bad news for the world’s hungriest people. But, Brinkman says, "there is a good aspect to this. The food crisis has attracted a lot of attention, and there’s a new emphasis on developing agriculture and social safety nets."
Aid agencies, he added, are now more aware of how to fight malnutrition in a cost-effective way, with micronutrients – tiny quantities of minerals that help the body produce chemicals needed for growth and development – and cheap, high-energy food supplements.
"We know we can reduce hunger over time, and that it’s important to act when children are very young, before they suffer from stunting that affects them for the rest of their lives," Brinkman said.
A recent meeting of the wealthy G8 countries pledged $22 billion over three years to aid the world’s poorest people. But it is not clear how, or when, it will reach them.