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Illustration by Michael Austin

Conflict, Climate, and COVID-19: Measuring Worldwide Hunger Hotspots

Twenty-three countries face acute food insecurity, and it’s only getting worse, warned the United Nations (UN) and the World Food Programme (WFP) in its July 2021 Hunger Hotspots report.

In Madagascar alone, 28,000 people are at risk of famine by the end of 2021 due to ongoing drought. The countries of particular concern are those with high numbers of people in food-insecure conditions coupled with other drivers, such as conflict, economic shocks from the COVID-19 pandemic, and climate-related hazards and weather extremes.

In 2020, 155 million people faced food-related crises, emergencies, or catastrophes, according to the UN—a 20 million person increase compared to 2019. More than 41 million people worldwide are at risk of falling into famine or famine-like conditions if they do not receive immediate assistance.

The countries of highest concern include Ethiopia, Madagascar, Nigeria, South Sudan, and Yemen.


Climate events—when combined with other problems in food insecure parts of the world—exacerbate conflicts as people compete for scarce resources, driving displacement and social tensions. 


Conflict continues to be the primary driver for food insecurity, affecting 65 percent of food insecure people. However, the economic impact of COVID-19—including weakening currencies, rapid inflation, high food prices, widening unemployment, increasing debt, and low purchasing power—is of increasing immediate and long-term concern. As of March 2021, the WFP estimated that 272 million people were already or are at risk of becoming acutely food insecure as a result of the COVID-19 crisis.

“WFP also projects that a record 235 million people will need humanitarian assistance and protection in 2021, nearly a 40 percent increase on 2020,” the WFP’s Research, Assessment, and Monitoring Division tells Security Management. “This rise is almost entirely brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.”

In Syria, for example, food insecurity has been exacerbated by global, regional, and local COVID-19 impacts and mitigations. Lockdowns pushed up food prices and disrupted the economy, food commodity prices climbed, and import certifications were delayed.

Food prices increased steadily worldwide from June 2020 through May 2021, and, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Food Price Index, prices were more than 30 percent higher in June 2021 than the year before.

Climate shocks and weather extremes are also expected to impact livelihoods and food supplies in many countries in the coming months. Below-average rainfall in Afghanistan, Madagascar, Angola, and parts of East Africa will likely lead to reduced crop yields and less pasture for livestock. Above-average rainfall—including flood conditions—in South Sudan is likely to lead to displacement and crop damage.

“These floods would follow massive ones in 2020, which displaced more than 1 million people in the country, nearly half of them in southeastern regions including Jonglei,” the WFP report said.

The climate crisis is no longer a glimpse into the future, but a daily reality for many around the world, according to the Research, Assessment, and Monitoring Division.

“Climate shocks—such as drought, storms, wildfires, and floods—are increasingly putting lives and livelihoods at risk and eroding development,” the division says. “The climate crisis is one of the main drivers of global hunger.

“Climate events—when combined with other problems in food insecure parts of the world—exacerbate conflicts as people compete for scarce resources, driving displacement and social tensions,” the group continues. “More broadly, the climate crisis affects the functioning of global food systems at all levels—from production to consumption. Food availability, diversity, access, and safety are being affected by climate shocks and stresses, including rising sea levels, land degradation, changing precipitation patterns, and increasing temperatures. In the decades to come, we are looking at a 50 percent increase in food demand and losing about 30 percent of crop yields due to climate crises.”

And impacts from climate change are likely to continue spiraling upwards. The UN’s sixth assessment report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) delivered an alarming picture of how ongoing climate change could continue to affect global weather patterns and natural disasters.

Data reviewed by the IPCC found that extreme heat waves now occur five times as often as before, and if global warming hits a 2-degree Celsius threshold, they could occur 14 times as often. Similarly, droughts that occurred once every 10 years now occur 70 percent more frequently, said Paola Andrea Arias Gómez, one of the report’s authors. Severe droughts will arise two to three times as often if the 2-degree threshold is met.

“As things stand, it’s highly likely that we will reach 1.5 degrees of warming within the next 20 years, with the best-case scenario under current trajectories seeing warming of 2-3 degrees,” says James Morris, CPP, head of security services for the EMEA region at Aon Business Services. “A world that is 2 degrees warmer will see much more extreme weather, and this will happen much more often, too.”

Under such an increase in temperatures, sea level rise, extreme weather, and drought could drive deteriorations in health and well-being; mass migration—which, as seen in Europe in the past decade, can trigger social tensions, political instability, weak governance, and corruption.

“This is why the Syrian Civil War is cited by some as the first ‘climate war,’ as there are some who see the long-term effects of climate change in its genesis: a historic agricultural region suffering long droughts that destroyed food production and killed livestock, leading to a mass migration into major cities and a drain on already stretched welfare programs, which led to protests and ultimately violence,” Morris says. “Now, this is a simplistic way to look at the Syrian situation—and there were several other factors at play—but the key elements are extreme weather affecting food and job security, rising tension among communities as a result of migration, weak governments, poverty, and social ills, and these are all things we will see much more of in the future.”

The links between conflict and hunger are complex, according to the WFP Research, Assessment, and Monitoring Division.


A sense of injustice can be lethal when overlaid with sectarian or ethnic differences and other factors such as climate shocks. 


“It is clear that poverty and hunger alone do not necessarily lead to violence,” it adds. “However, a sense of injustice can be lethal when overlaid with sectarian or ethnic differences and other factors such as climate shocks.”

Additionally, grievances about jobs, land, and wealth can be exploited by individuals who want to foment unrest.

“We see a clear connection here between food insecurity and historic, or ongoing, violence. These are also areas that face the risk of severe climate impacts,” Morris says. “When we talk about climate change as a security threat multiplier of security, we are talking about examples such as these 23 regions—food insecurity and disruption to livelihoods, coupled with climatic changes and environmental events that all combine to exacerbate volatile situations.”

The WFP’s internal monitoring found that in July 2021, there were 17,135 conflict-related fatalities globally, and there were 18 countries classified at high risk of food insecurity.

“Reviewed in tandem,” the WFP tells Security Management, “our analysis found that three-quarters of the total number of conflict-related fatalities could be traced to these 18 high-risk countries alone.”

Conflict extends beyond war and insurgencies, however. Organized crime groups and drug trafficking organizations also have ramifications for food security efforts—especially when they seek to restrict humanitarian groups’ access to people in need.

In a statement to Security Management, the WFP’s Security Division says that armed gang activity or violence linked to groups’ attempts to control resources or expand their power base has direct and indirect impacts on food security.

“Highway robberies, extortions, and cargo-oriented crime is a billion-dollar problem worldwide, and countries with weak or unprofessional security forces are particularly exposed,” the division says. “Such crimes, which are difficult to track due to low reporting and no central gathering of data, prevent food from reaching markets and drive up food prices.”

In some regions of Central America—mainly the Northern Triangle of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras—violent street gangs often present themselves as an alternative to state authority, and they may view humanitarian assistance as jeopardizing their control.

In Colombia, rural communities have been cut off from government and humanitarian assistance by gangs. Criminal groups are affecting food security by banning projects to fight hunger or provide aid from entering neighborhoods under guerilla control, the WFP says.

“The most recent flare-up of gang activity and violence in the outskirts of Haiti’s capital, Port-au-Prince, is one of the most blatant manifestations of crime affecting food security, with gangs blocking roads and supply chains,” according to the WFP. “Martissant, a neighborhood west of Port-au-Prince, has been a scene of fighting between two rival gangs, the Ti Lapli and the Krisla, which is having a catastrophic impact on the local community. The entire neighborhood has been isolated, resulting in shortages of basic goods and services.”

This then exacerbates food insecurity in the region, especially as all ground transport trying to reach southern Haiti must pass through Martissant, risking gang violence.

Beyond the effect on food-insecure communities and people, this criminal activity threatens aid workers. In the first eight months of 2021, more than 50 percent of all work-related incidents reported by WFP as affecting its personnel, partners, and contractors were categorized as crimes—including theft of humanitarian aid commodities, attacks on or robberies of convoys, threats to personnel, and prevalence of high-impact criminal activity such as abductions. 

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