As climate change increasingly threatens our ability to feed the world's hungriest, the World Food Programme is working against the clock to protect agriculture
By David Beasley, Executive Director, World Food Programme
We used to understand the weather.
Not anymore, said a member of an indigenous community in the Republic of the Congo to one of my colleagues recently. Her words reverberate far beyond the central African country.
Here, temperatures have risen by 0.6 degrees Celsius since the 1950s, rivers rich with fish are running dry and unreliable rainfall means growing crops is a yearly gamble. I wish I could say the Republic of the Congo was an isolated case, but it is just a snapshot of a trend I have observed in countries around the world. When it comes to the impact of climate change - regardless of any particular views about what is causing it - the world’s poor and vulnerable feel it first.
Nowhere are people struggling to understand the climate more than in Mozambique. Earlier this year I witnessed at first hand the devastating impact of the widespread flooding from Cyclone Idai. Communities mourned their dead while all around them an estimated 400,000 hectares of crops had been washed away - just weeks ahead of the main harvest - and livestock and fisheries were also ravaged.
The Idai disaster is part of an increasingly consistent pattern. The number of weather-related disasters – droughts, floods and storms – has more than doubled since the early 1990s. Just in the past two years, the World Food Programme (WFP) and our humanitarian partners have been at the forefront of responding to these disasters: Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria in the Caribbean in 2017, and Cyclones Kenneth and Idai in Zimbabwe, Malawi and the aforementioned Mozambique in 2019, and Hurricane Dorian in the Bahamas in 2019.
Last year, weather-related disasters pushed 29 million more people around the world into acute food insecurity - in essence, often chronically hungry people with little access to a dependable food supply other than through humanitarian assistance.
We estimate that of the more than 100 million people experiencing acute hunger around the world, 54 million are affected by climate extremes. These include heat waves in Pakistan, drought and loss of crops in Southern Africa, and dying livestock in Somalia. Small island nations are suffering more from storms and flooding, farming in coastal areas is impacted by increased salt in soil and water, while melting glaciers heighten the risk of flash floods. The impact is significant, and it is often felt most in the poorest of nations.
A one-two punch
Climate shocks and conflict are often a one-two punch for those at risk for hunger. Recent research by WFP, the International Research Institute on Climate and Society, and the CGIAR Research Program on Climate Change, Agriculture and Food Security has highlighted these links, finding a concentration of hotspots where high rainfall variability and violent loss of life overlapped. This is particularly apparent in the Sahel, Northern Africa, the Horn of Africa and Southern Africa - all areas where WFP is being called upon to provide emergency and development assistance.
Climate shocks can destabilize communities, leading to fresh outbreaks of conflict that drive new humanitarian crises as well as forced displacement. Competition for reduced natural resources brought about by climate shocks can also fuel conflict.
Change lives, not simply save them
As the largest humanitarian organisation in the UN system, WFP is often first on the ground responding to disasters and providing emergency relief in the shape of food, cash or other supplies. In the middle of an emergency, our main job is to save lives. But the scale of the problems today - conflict on top of the impact of climate - means simply saving lives is not a long-term solution. We have to change lives as well by making it possible for people to withstand and adapt to the worst effects of weather extremes.
WFP and the entire humanitarian system must move from simply reacting to crises. We must look forward, anticipating the problems and building up resilience. This is the only way to truly tackle the monumental threat posed to millions of people’s livelihoods and their food security.
A 15-day warning
We can do this in an innovative way, one that has the potential to save money that might otherwise have to be spent in a humanitarian emergency. In Nepal we are piloting an approach known as Forecast-based Financing. Using improved early warnings based on credible weather forecasts, communities can be alerted to floods a full 15 days ahead of time, with local disaster-response committees getting money early in order to take pre-emptive action. These investments have remarkable potential, as the cost of providing emergency aid for 175,000 people living in flood-prone areas could be reduced from around US$32 million to just US$10 million.
Another risk-management approach we have rolled out is weather-based index insurance. This uses primarily remote sensing and hydrometeorological data to determine more precisely when crop losses occur, for the triggering of insurance payments. The approach saves time and cuts the potential for human error. When dry spells blighted crops across Africa in 2018, farmers in Ethiopia, Senegal, Kenya, Zambia and Malawi received insurance money that enabled them to buy food, seeds and fertilizer.
We’re also using insurance to finance WFP’s humanitarian operations in vulnerable African countries prone to extreme drought, via what is known as ‘ARC Replica’. Under this innovative approach, WFP and partners can buy insurance coverage for countries under the Africa Risk Capacity, a specialised agency of the African Union that receives administrative support from WFP. The initiative supports African governments to better plan, prepare and respond to extreme weather events and disasters.
Fertile after 50 years
On a recent visit to Burkina Faso, part of the Sahel region, I saw for myself how droughts and failed harvests have produced the worst lean season since 2014, compounded by instability caused by extremist groups. Here, in a small central-northern village named Bissighin, I stood on land that had lain barren for up to 50 years and that was now fertile and growing crops. How? A WFP initiative called Food for Asset Creation provided families with food or cash in exchange for work to restore the land through ploughing new irrigation channels.
In Bissighin, I met a young man named Tasseré and his family, who had fled from violence in central Burkina Faso. Through Food for Asset Creation, they had a piece of land to farm and grow crops. This is WFP’s approach, helping governments create ways for people to adapt and stand on their own. So while the poor and vulnerable may often be the first to feel the impact of a changing climate, they also can lead the process of learning to adapt to it.
Behind our targets
It is clear that taking pre-emptive steps can make it possible to mitigate the impact of a changing climate. But WFP and other humanitarian organisations cannot introduce these solutions on their own. We need national governments to be at the heart of these efforts, determining their countries’ own futures over the longer term. This means we also need peace, because where there is conflict and instability, long-term work is extremely difficult.
The impact of climate change and the destructive influence of conflict on hunger means that we are already lagging behind our targets to reach the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal of zero hunger by 2030. But I believe that if we combine a sharper focus on resolving conflict and a renewed push for long-term investment in programmes that can combat the impact of climate change, we can get back on track and meet this most important goal that will not just save lives, but also change them.
David Beasley is the Executive Director of the World Food Programme
Next week: Nobel Laureate Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
- The 2020 Super Year series is a collaboration between freuds, Goals House and Raconteur