The silent tsunami

Hunger now afflicts almost a billion people in 60 countries … and kills 25,000 a day. A special report by Rob Edwards to explain the background to our Christmas appeal

A SILENT tsunami of hunger is engulfing the world, afflicting nearly a billion people in 60 countries and killing 25,000 men, women and children every day. The global food crisis, triggered by high prices, shortages and bad weather, is deepening as the world’s economy moves into recession. Millions more people are now facing poverty, starvation, disease and death.

The World Bank is predicting that 967 million people will now go hungry in 2008, 44 million more than in 2007. That means that almost one in every six people on the planet is not getting enough food to stay healthy.

Children’s growth is being stunted, immune systems are being destroyed and fatal diseases like diarrhoea, measles and malaria are spreading.

“This is a tragic loss of human and economic potential”, says a report from the World Bank.

Irreparable damage is being done to the health, life and prospects of hundreds of millions of people, it warns. “This is not only a crisis now, but a time bomb for the future.”

The World Bank also estimates that 2008 has pushed 100 million more people into serious poverty, making it more difficult for them to afford life’s essentials. Some 2.3 billion people worldwide have to manage on less than the equivalent of £1.35 a day.

The first half of the year saw huge rises in the prices of food and fuel, which, when combined with crop failures, global warming and growing demand, plunged humanity into an unprecedented crisis. Since then, though, prices have dropped, and the global economic slowdown has piled on the misery.

“The second half of this year has seen a financial crisis which has aggravated the unfolding human crisis,” said the World Bank’s vice-president for human development, Joy Phumaphi. For her, the events of 2008 have been the most serious since the Great Depression in the 1930s.

“For people living on the margins of life and vulnerable to every twist and volatile turn in the global economy,” she argued, “the grim trinity of crises in food, fuel and fertiliser threatens to have lasting repercussions on the nutrition, health, and schooling of children and mothers in poor families.”

Phumaphi, who was formerly minister of health in Botswana, is worried that the global financial crisis could set back the fight against hunger and poverty. Country economies will shrink, businesses will fail and rich countries may feel less like giving aid.

She pointed out that Europe was spending £38 billion on foreign aid, which was less than 0.3% of the continent’s gross domestic product.

This was, she said, “a drop in the ocean compared to the trillions of dollars that are now being spent on financial rescues in the developed world”.

“This is the greatest challenge of our time. Everything that we have worked for, the development gains of the last decade – maybe decades – are at risk.”

The World Bank points out that though prices of key foods are now below their peaks of earlier this year, they are still relatively high.

So while Thai medium grade rice fell from £750 to £500 a ton between May and September, rice prices are still double their average level in 2007.

According to the charity Oxfam, global food prices remain 28% higher that two years ago. Prices for most major food crops are projected to remain high for at least the next seven years, while crude oil prices are still twice as high in real terms as they were at the peak of the 1970s oil crisis.

Some of the poorer countries with high levels of malnutrition can also be hit harder by price hikes. The World Bank says that Burundi, East Timor, Madagascar, Niger, and Yemen have all suffered double-digit food inflation in 2007-08.

Even countries with high levels of growth are experiencing problems. In India, the United Nations Children’s Fund estimates that up to 1.8 million more children are at risk of malnourishment as households cut back on nutritious meals because of rising prices. In 2007-08, the average price of rice rose by 21%, and wheat by 15%.

In countries like Vietnam, where 78% of the calorific intake of the poor comes from rice, such increases threaten the health and nutrition of people in both rural and urban areas.

Last week the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) warned that Somalia was in danger of descending into famine. About half of the country’s population, beset by droughts, floods and two decades of conflict, is dependent on food aid.

According to the head of the ICRC in East Africa, Alexandre Liebeskind, families are now having to eat their most prized possessions – camels and goats of reproductive age. It is a sign of increasing desperation, he said.

But it doesn’t need a dramatic famine for millions of people to die of hunger, according to Judith Robertson, head of Oxfam Scotland. “Most victims die out of sight of the world’s media and the global public,” she said. “They die of chronic malnutrition, a consequence of not eating enough nutritionally appropriate food over months and years.”

The economic crisis would make matters worse, she told the Sunday Herald. “Already there are reports of failing inward investment to developing countries, lost export opportunities, and reducing funds sent back from family members working in developed countries,” she added. “All these factors can exacerbate an already extreme situation.”

According to Oxfam’s latest analysis, 178 million children under five are suffering from stunted growth caused by malnutrition. More than 3.5 million mothers and young children are dying from hunger or diseases caused by malnutrition every year.

The global crisis came to a head earlier this year, when food shortages sparked protests in more than 30 countries. There were “tortilla riots” in Mexico, at least 100 arrests in Burkina Faso and another 100 in Yemen, as well as five deaths in Haiti and 24 in Cameroon during civil unrest.

Now, growing alarm over future food security has prompted another disturbing development – a global land grab. Countries and big companies worried about having enough food to feed their people have begun buying up vast swathes of land in poor countries.

The South Korean firm Daewoo Logistics is seeking a 99-year lease on 1.3 million hectares of Madagascar to grow maize and palm oil. Egypt is reported to be investing in Sudan, Libya in Ukraine, Saudi Arabia in Thailand and China in Africa, the Philippines and Russia.

Some fear that the land grabs could worsen poverty because few benefits will flow to the poorer host countries, and small farmers could lose out. Although the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) is drawing up guidelines to protect their interests, it is far from clear whether anyone will follow them.

Tackling the food crisis requires an understanding of its underlying structural roots, argues Gavin McLellan, the head of Christian Aid Scotland.

“Global poverty and hunger are deeply rooted in economic and political systems and are being exacerbated by climate change and the global financial crisis,” he said.

“Developing countries desperately need sources of finance so that they can meet their people’s basic needs and the financial crisis is making this even harder. It means that the aid they get from rich countries is under threat, demand for their exports is falling, and loans and investments are being withdrawn from their economies.”

McLellan urged greater transparency in the global tax system. “Tax evasion by international businesses amounts to some $160 billion £110bn a year,” he said.

“Allocated according to present spending patterns, that’s enough to save the lives of 350,000 children under five, every year.”

The FAO has been calling for an extra £20bn a year to help defuse the global food crisis.

Its director-general, Jacques Diouf, has highlighted the fact that the world spent £820 billion on weapons in 2006. He has also pointed out that one rich country can waste £68bn worth of food a year. The two billion people in the world who are overweight spend about £13bn to indulge their overeating, he said.

“Against that backdrop, how can we explain to people of good sense and good faith that it is not possible to find an extra $30bn a year to enable hungry people to enjoy the most fundamental of human rights: the right to food and thus the right to life?” Diouf asked.

Source: Sunday Herald

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