Conflict continues to produce food security crises

Analysis in brief: Insurgencies are the primary cause of food shortages throughout Africa in 2024, with the Sahel region particularly affected. Harsh weather wrought by climate change worsen the food production outlook. Sustainable solutions are available, but all rely on the establishment of peace and security.

Identifying the challenges

Conflict has negatively affected food production throughout Africa’s history. In 2024, the perpetual plague of conflict in various African locations has put millions of people in danger of starvation, outstripping available international aid. The 21st century has brought a new perennial plague: global warming, causing severe weather like flooding and drought that disrupts food production. Both conflict and climate change are human-caused maladies that can be ended through human actions. For the foreseeable future, however, humanitarian groups can only track areas of the highest danger and prepare mitigation measures.

The tracking organisation that proactively identifies danger zones for countries that face famine worldwide is the World Food Programme (WFP). The WFP keeps a list of ‘hotspot’ countries that face life-threatening conditions because of food shortages. The countries that were added to the 2024 list are the Central African Republic, Mozambique, Nigeria, Sierra Leone and Zambia. Listed in 2023 and the remaining ‘hunger hotspots’ in 2024 are Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Malawi, Somalia and Zimbabwe. Of the 18 countries identified in 2024 by the WFP, all but five are African, but all are involved in armed conflicts or experience political violence. Nigeria is one such country, engaged in a decades-long battle with the Islamic terrorists al-Shabaab. On the eastern end of the Sahel, conflict continues in the Horn of Africa, driving hunger in Ethiopia in particular. Of the countries of highest concern in terms of famine, three of the top four are African: Mali, South Sudan and the Sudan. The Democratic Republic of Congo’s eastern provinces are Africa’s area of primary concern and face critical levels of acute food insecurity as well.

More than ¾ of countries facing food security challenges are in Africa
Image courtesy: Knowledge for Policy

The greatest concentration of Africa’s hunger hotspots, the Sahel Region, is an area has been severely strained by both climate change and conflict. The geographic buffer between the arid Sahara Desert and the tropical lushness of Central Africa has engaged humankind in survival efforts against nature at its harshest for thousands of years, while throughout millennia, only camel caravans could penetrate the waterless stretches between North Africa and the Malian Empire’s capital, Timbuktu. In 2024, many Sahel countries like Niger are arid in the north and green in the south. These Sahel countries are the reason that Central and West Africa face severe food security and nutrition crises. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation in a joint assessment with the WFP has projected that 55 million people will face acute hunger during the winter months of 2024 when food stocks from the previous year’s harvest are exhausted and new harvests are months away. This number is four times higher than the 12.6 million people who suffered acute hunger in 2019. Malnutrition, a consequence of famine, has also reached crisis levels, with 17 million under-five-year-old children in the region being acutely malnourished.

In addition to the perennial forces of climate change and conflict, the third factor driving the hunger and concomitant nutrition crisis in West and Central Africa is global inflation. National currencies depreciate when the balance of trade is damaged by the need to pay for more for imported oil, a necessity in agriculture to run tractors and transport goods to market. A country’s depreciated currency also means that farmers must pay more for agricultural inputs, leading to higher food prices that make nutrition unattainable for the poor. The situation is made worse as the middle class is less able to absorb economic shocks, being in turn drained of their own financial resources by increases in global inflation. All of these factors and more contribute to the food crises in countries like Ghana, Nigeria and Sierra Leone.

In recent years, global warming has made weather conditions more volatile and thus more difficult for agriculture
Image courtesy: International Red Cross

While the effects of global warming are worsening by the year, age-old weather factors that disrupt agriculture continue along their timeless schedule. The La Niña climate pattern from the Pacific Ocean brings extreme weather, responsible for damaging rains, cyclones, flooding and drought. The most severe weather conditions will strike between August 2024 and February 2025. Although additional rains might bring benefits to East African farming fields, food production may be negatively affected by flooding that is predicted in Ethiopia, Somalia, South Sudan and Sudan. The climate phenomenon of La Niña is forecast to take flooding eastward across the Sahel all the way to Chad, Mali and Nigeria. Tracking additional strains from weather forecasts, WFP worries that weather-related disruptions may delay this year’s harvests, thus prolonging famines and worsening the nutrition crisis. The WFP has reported that due to La Niña, in Mali, South Sudan and Sudan, “further starvation and death are likely.”

Food crisis response faces obstacles

The WFP has increased its food and nutrition aid programme in Central and West Africa to reach 7.3 million during the critical June-to-August winter season when hunger levels are at their highest and food stocks are depleted. Primary beneficiaries of this aid are Burkina Faso, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Chad, Mali, Mauritania, Niger and Nigeria.

However, the WFP cannot reach all in need because “the escalation of humanitarian needs far [outstrip] available resources,” according to a statement from the organisation. With more funding, 12 million people in need can be reached, the WFP has noted. Even so, this year’s mid-year food crisis will be repeated next year and in all years to come until conflict ceases in Africa, and humankind has ended the global warming crisis. Until then, the WFP has remarked that what is required is “long-term transformative hunger solutions.” This includes boosting agricultural production and facilitating food distribution. By implementing these measures, poverty could be eradicated, enabling families to better cope with inflationary pressures and other economic shocks. To accomplish this requires a holistic approach that incorporates children’s education and gender equality. An educated population that harnesses the abilities of women is integral to raising income levels across the Sahel and other parts of Africa.

Rather than food relief, food production is the dominant theme of food security initiatives that seek sustainable ways to address the fundamental causes thereof. Assisting small farmers in the age of climate change requires the provision of reliable weather forecasting and expertise to ensure proper crops are planted and field drainage is put into practice to mitigate flood damage. Conflict resolution is another imperative to address the root causes of hunger and malnutrition.

Uganda farmer
One goal sought by organisations seeking food security in Africa is the modernisation of farming methods, replacing traditional manual farming as it is practiced here by a Ugandan farmer with a hoe.
Image courtesy: Kate Holt/AusAID/WikiCommons

The critical points:

  • Severe weather and conflict are causing food shortages throughout Africa in 2024
  • 15 of the 18 nations designated by the WFP as ‘hunger hotspots’ are in Africa
  • The Sahel Region of Africa is hardest hit, particularly by the hunger crisis