By Sharon Atieno

The global goal of achieving ‘zero hunger’ by 2030 seems increasingly out of reach with annual rise in the numbers of food-insecure people in need of urgent food, nutrition and livelihood assistance, a new report finds.

The 2021 Global Report on Food Crises (GRFC) notes that in a span of one year, the number of people with high food consumption gaps or above usual acute malnutrition (crisis or worse) had increased by 20 million people. In 2020, at least 155 million people in 55 countries/ territories were in this situation.

Among the 39 countries/territories included in the GRFC since 2016, the number of people in crisis or worse has increased from 94 million to 147 million people, reflecting worsening levels and wider geographical coverage, the report reads.

In addition, around 28 million people across 38 countries/territories were in emergency or worse and required urgent action to save lives and livelihoods. Most people in these dire circumstances were in Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Sudan and Yemen – with at least 2 million people in emergency in each country.

According to the report, around 133 000 people were in the most severe phase – catastrophe– in Burkina Faso, South Sudan and Yemen and needed urgent action to prevent widespread death and total collapse of livelihoods.

In South Sudan, the number of people in catastrophe rose from zero in May–July 2020 to 92 000 in October–November 2020, and increased further to 105 000 in six counties by December.

Of the 55 food crises identified in 2020, 10 were exemplary with most people in crisis or worse – six of these were in Africa (the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Sudan, northern Nigeria, Ethiopia, South Sudan and Zimbabwe), two in the Middle East (the Syrian Arab Republic and Yemen), one in the Americas (Haiti) and one in South Asia (Afghanistan), the report highlights.

For the third consecutive year, three conflict-affected countries – the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Yemen and Afghanistan– had the largest populations in crisis or worse. These three, plus the Syrian Arab Republic, accounted for nearly 40 percent of the total population in these phases.

In terms of prevalence, the Central African Republic, South Sudan and the Syrian Arab Republic had more than half of their analysed populations in crisis or worse while five countries – Afghanistan, Haiti, Lesotho, Yemen and Zimbabwe – had between 40 and 45 percent of their analysed populations in Crisis or worse.

Children have not been spared

According to the report, in 2020 over 15.8 million children under 5 years old living in the 55 food crises were suffering from wasting. Nearly half of these (7.2 million) lived in the 10 worst food crises.

The situation was particularly concerning in northern Nigeria, Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and the Sudan, which accounted for more than a third of all children affected by wasting in food-crisis countries.

“The nutrition situation was particularly critical in countries affected by protracted conflict. Of the 10 countries/territories with the highest prevalence of wasting, eight (Yemen, South Sudan, the Sudan, the Niger, Somalia, Chad, northern Nigeria, and Burkina Faso) are affected by protracted conflict,” the report reads.

“Conflict and insecurity have disrupted the channels of food access and the functioning of basic health and sanitary services, severely affecting the nutritional status of the most vulnerable, especially women and children.”

The report further finds that the 10 countries experiencing the worst food crises in 2020 were particularly affected by nutrition and health service disruptions mostly due to COVID-19 restrictions.

In six out of the nine countries with data, vitamin A supplementation dropped nationally by at least 25 percent. The drop exceeded 50 percent in Afghanistan, northern Nigeria and the Sudan. In the Syrian Arab Republic and Yemen, the implementation of wasting treatment programmes dropped by 25–49 percent.

The drivers

The report observes that conflict remained the main driver of food crises in 23 countries/territories, where almost 100 million people were in crisis or worse – up from around 77 million in 22 countries/territories in 2019.

Economic shocks including those resulting from COVID-19 pandemic also contributed significantly to the food situation worsening as people were unable to afford food.

“In 2020, economic shocks (including those resulting from COVID-19) were considered to be the primary driver of acute food insecurity in 17 countries, accounting for over 40 million people in crisis or worse relative to eight countries in 2019 with around 24 million people,” the report notes.

Moreover, intense weather extremes including exceptionally heavy rains and floods, tropical storms, hurricanes compounded the severity of food crises and accounted for around 16 million people in crisis or worse across 15 countries.

2021 not looking bright

According to the report, conflict, the COVID-19 pandemic, and large-scale economic crises are likely to extend food-crisis situations in 2021, necessitating continuing large-scale humanitarian assistance.

Over 142 million people in 40 out of the 55 countries/territories included in this report are forecast to be in crisis or worse in 2021. Around 155 000 people will likely face catastrophe in two of these countries through mid 2021, with 108 000 in South Sudan and 47 000 in Yemen.
However, no forecasts were available for the 15 remaining countries/territories at the time of publication.

Five of the major food crises are expected to have at least 12 million people in crisis or worse led by the Democratic Republic of the Congo (27.3 million) and Yemen (16.1 million), followed by Afghanistan (13.2 million), Ethiopia (12.9 million) and northern Nigeria (12.8 million), the report notes.