In Africa, Conflict and Climate Super-Charge the Forces Behind Famine and Food Insecurity
Jeffrey Maganya has spent the last three decades of his professional life trying to prevent people from going hungry. But in all those years, something beyond his control has crept into the work, slowly growing like the heat.
Now, he’s battling another hunger crisis.
In four counties of northern Kenya, rural farmers are facing near-famine conditions after repeated droughts. Their crops have withered. More than 1.5 million cattle carcasses are disintegrating into the region’s dusty soils. The trucks that used to come with food have stopped making the trek on terrible roads. It’s not worth their time.
Maganya, a regional advisor with the aid organization Oxfam, calls it “a really dire humanitarian situation.”
“It’s long-term climate change,” he adds, placing blame where he sees it. “The rains are failing.”
When Maganya started his career at 21, famine was largely seen as a failure of government—the consequence of war or weak government, made worse by the occasional year of dry weather or flooding or storms. But now climate change has scrambled once-reliable weather patterns, making it impossible for rural farmers to decide what to plant and when.
“There’s just too little rain or too much rain. Abnormality is the new normal,” Maganya said. “Human beings are adapted to patterns, and if we don’t have patterns, we don’t know how to respond. We’re still using the old memories. But there’s something big happening here, under our feet.”
Food insecurity and famine are the result of a complex mix of problems, making one cause difficult to disentangle from the next. Conflict, poverty, lack of infrastructure, weak government and inflation all can be factors. Recently the global pandemic has destabilized communities, depleted personal financial resources and upended supply chains, making food more expensive.
Conflict—in eastern Africa and beyond—has made reaching people impossible, and cut off supplies of staples. Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia depend on Ukraine for wheat, as does the World Food Program, which gets half the wheat it distributes from the country. Food and fertilizer prices are at record highs.
In this complicated tangle of cause-and-effect, it’s becoming increasingly clear that climate change intersects with all of these challenges and is super-charging conditions that result in famine and food insecurity.
But officially calling something a climate-induced famine remains complicated, controversial and even fraught, given the promises wealthy nations have made under the Paris climate accord to compensate developing countries for losses related to global warming caused by greenhouse gas pollution.
Attributing mass starvation to climate change, one resilience expert says, opens a “pandora’s box” of responsibility.
The numbers this year are staggering: Conflict, Covid and climate change-fueled weather conspired to bring 193 million people toward “crisis levels” of hunger in 2021, nearly double that of 103 million five years ago. That figure will climb when the effects of the Russian invasion of Ukraine are taken into account.
And nowhere is the crisis more acute right now than in these three African countries, where the “fingerprints” of climate change are especially obvious.
“With climate change, there’s a new challenge every year, every month,” said Moses Emalu, a manager for Save the Children, covering Kenya and Madagascar. “It used to be that you talked about drought every 10 years. Now it’s become so frequent. Every year communities lose their livelihoods.”
Some advocates and development specialists have argued for a U.N.-led “Food Systems Stability Board” that would attempt to manage the intersecting crises of climate change, biodiversity loss, poverty and poor governance that lead to hunger and growing levels of food insecurity.
This, advocates say, could be especially critical as the global population reaches a projected 10 billion by 2050 and there are 2 billion more people to feed.
In the past two decades, food aid organizations have shifted their focus toward building resilience in communities to help them better bounce back from food crises. But right now the major aid organizations are overwhelmed, so that essential work isn’t happening.
“We don’t have enough money to meet the food needs of people who are acutely food insecure today,” said Gernot Laganda, head of climate and disaster risk reduction programs at the World Food Program. “We can’t feed people fast enough. We can’t catch up.”
In neighboring Somalia and Ethiopia similar situations are playing out. In May, researchers from Oxfam and Save the Children said that in these three drought-depleted countries in the Horn of Africa a person is likely dying every 48 seconds and a major humanitarian catastrophe is unfolding. The number of critically hungry people in these countries has doubled since last year, and is now about 23 million.
The latest projections say the region could see yet another drought this fall, extending the conditions to an unprecedented five or even six successive seasons.
“There is no doubt that so many of these droughts and famines that are happening, and are going to be happening, are climate related,” said Colleen Kelly, CEO of Concern Worldwide, a network of humanitarian aid groups. “It’s on the brink of being one of the worst situations in history.”
A Political Problem
Ask humanitarian agencies and aid groups what their biggest emerging challenge is, and they’ll point a finger directly at the changing weather.
“In that part of the world, for thousands of years, there was a very predictable pattern—dry seasons and wet seasons,” Kelly said. “People planned for them. Now the droughts are getting longer and more severe, and when it does rain, they’re violent and shorter.”
But despite the mounting pile of research, including from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and United Nations, that climate change will threaten the world’s ability to feed its growing population, actually calling an event a “climate-change induced famine” is significantly more complicated.
The layperson’s idea of “famine” is pretty straightforward: It means people in a certain region don’t have enough food and are malnourished or starving to death. But defining “famine” officially is a politically fraught and difficult proposition. “Avoiding the famine label has often been convenient for those seeking to justify slow or failed responses,” said researchers from the U.K.-based Overseas Development Institute, in a 2005 report.
In an effort to provide neutral guidance, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) uses a scale called the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification (IPC) to define the severity of food emergencies and what, exactly, constitutes a famine. A review committee makes the specific classifications.
Under the IPC system, famine is defined as an “extreme” lack of food, with specific critical levels of malnutrition and mortality.
“The situation in Somalia and Northern Ethiopia and parts of South Sudan can deteriorate into famine because, in addition to the drought, there are deliberate decisions by government to prevent getting food to people or to cover up the problem, or in other malign ways, let people perish,” said Mark Lowcock, former U.N. undersecretary-general for humanitarian affairs and author of the book “Relief Chief,” which covers his years working the Horn of Africa.
In Kenya, Lowcock added, “I think what we’ve got is a climate-induced food insecurity problem. It would require very substantial neglect by the government for that to be allowed to turn into a famine. A famine is very extreme.”
Adding “climate change” to the famine label means meeting yet more criteria—via scientific analysis and attribution—and is becoming equally controversial.
Last summer and fall, in southern Madagascar, more than one million people were on the brink of starvation after successive droughts. Conditions were so parched that people resorted to eating dead locusts and cactus, until those, too, shriveled and died.
Officials at the World Food Program said the island nation of 27 million was experiencing the world’s first climate change-induced famine. David Beasley, the head of the WFP and former governor of South Carolina, told reporters that 38 million people were displaced because of “climate shocks, climate change.”
A spokesperson for the WFP told the BBC: “These are famine-like conditions and they’re being driven by climate not conflict.”
Soon after, a group of scientists called that statement a mistake. In December a group of researchers with World Weather Attribution—a project that aims to identify the impacts of human-caused climate change on weather events—published a paper effectively saying the opposite. “Based on observations and climate modeling, the occurrence of poor rains as observed from July 2019 to June 2021 in Southern Madagascar has not significantly increased due to human caused climate change,” the authors wrote.
“Climate change has an impact in this region, but it’s not the major cause or origin of famine,” said Thierry Razanakoto, one of the authors of the World Attribution Attribution paper, based in Madagascar’s capital, Antananarivo. “If you can furnish food for a population, if a population has income, it’s not a problem if there’s a minor variation.”
Anyone paying attention to the conversation felt whipsawed.
“Both of them are wrong and the truth is in the middle,” said Chris Funk, director of the Climate Hazards Center at the University of California, Santa Barbara. “As a climate scientist I would never say climate change is 100 percent responsible. But the weather attribution group did a very quick rapid attribution study—and I think, incorrectly—concluded that there is no climate change influence.”
Funk works with an international team of scientists on the Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET), a project that provides forecasting information about famines to ensure that aid reaches people on time.
Much of Funk’s work has focused on the effects of weather patterns on drought in the three African countries that are currently facing major hunger crises. Over the past decade, he and colleagues have concluded that climate change is, indeed, a major factor in the conditions there. That’s largely because human-driven warming has heated the western Pacific, driving a decline in rainfall during “La Niña” years.
In December, FEWS NET, along with FAO, the World Food Program and other agencies issued a relatively rare “joint alert,” saying that climate change was a primary driver of the drought in the eastern Horn of Africa and that the region faced widespread hunger.
They plan to issue another such alert as soon as this month because the response to the crisis from governments and aid agencies has so far been insufficient.
Weather conditions in eastern and southern Africa are influenced largely by sea surface temperatures in the Pacific and Indian oceans. The La Niña weather phenomenon is influenced by the Western Pacific, which has warmed up in recent years. When La Niña is dominant, wind patterns shift, pushing rain over the warmer waters. These changed wind patterns, in turn, shift rainfall patterns over eastern Africa.
“One of the absolutely indisputable facts is that between 1920 and 1998, when you had a La Niña, there was no link to the March, April, May rains,” Funk noted, referring to the “long” rains on which farmers in Eastern Africa depend. “Since then, there was a big climate shift, and in the last 24 years, there have been 12 La Niña events and in 78 percent of those, we’ve had below March, April, May rains in the eastern part of Africa. We think that that change is associated with climate change.
“This has produced four dry seasons in a row, and if the current forecast is verified, we’ll be looking at a fifth in October, November and December, and maybe a sixth in 2023,” Funk added, noting that the effects of climate change on agricultural production will extend well beyond this one part of the world.
“We’re fixating on this relatively small place,” Funk said. “But this will impact Asia, the U.S. southwest. It’s also a story for a lot of different places.”
In early June, the WFP said: “Right now 80 percent of the world’s hungry people live in areas prone to natural disasters and extreme weather, which creates exactly the right conditions for hunger to take hold.”
Failing to Adapt
Identifying the climate “fingerprints” in something as complicated as a famine or, as aid organizations tend to say, “famine-like conditions,” may be complicated, but in some senses, is beside the point.
“If you’re starving do you care about whether this drought, causing this food shortage, can be attributed to extra carbon dioxide in the atmosphere?” said John Furlow, the director of the International Research Institute for Climate and Society at Columbia University.
But, Furlow and others say, because climate change is making conditions more challenging and frequent, researchers, aid groups and forecasters need to work on speedier, more effective responses.
“I don’t think we have a full system in place to say we have a climate change-induced famine, just like we don’t have a system in place to say we have a climate change-induced heatwave,” said Cristina Rumbaitis del Rio, a senior advisor at the World Resources Institute who focuses on climate adaptation and resilience. “On the one hand it doesn’t matter. What does matter is how we respond.”
On the other hand, Rumbaitis del Rio continued, the label might be crucially important. Through international U.N.-sanctioned agreements, wealthy countries have agreed to compensate developing countries for the loss and damage they’ve suffered because of the warming caused by decades of emitting greenhouse gas pollution.
“Naming something a climate change-induced famine opens up a Pandora’s box: Who’s responsibility is it?” Rumbaitis del Rio said. “Potentially you could see high-emitting governments on the hook. There’s an accountability question and there’s a mandate question.”
Meanwhile, it’s become clear that handing out food or cash is not enough. Food aid groups, including the World Food Program, have added a new responsibility to their remit as the cascading effects of climate change on food security have become apparent.
“Because we’re seeing so many impacts, just giving out food every time is not the way to get to zero hunger,” said Jesse Mason, the global coordinator of “anticipatory action” at the World Food Program. “We’re going from an agency that was on standby, to an agency that’s doing more toward addressing climate change and conflict and the interplay between them.”
Mason said that the program began adding climate and atmospheric scientists about 10 years ago and now has teams working with local forecasters in regions around the world. These forecasters, who are increasingly in contact with governments and responders, are now able to better warn people before a food crisis hits.
“It can’t be someone in Rome or New York behind a bunch of screens, telling someone in Zimbabwe that something needs to be done,” Mason said. “We have improved technology, improved weather forecasts, nationally and internationally. That’s given us more confidence in acting.”
The focus has also shifted toward helping developing countries become more resilient when a climate-related disaster wipes out food supplies or decimates harvests. That has meant a greater focus on developing stronger instructure, better communications and stronger government resources, including the ability to predict when a disaster could strike.
“If a hurricane hits the U.S., there’s damage. If it hits a vulnerable country, it’s very different,” said Margot Vandervelden, director of emergencies for the World Food Program. “The vulnerabilities have now reached a level that we’ve never seen globally before.”
And yet, the World Food Program has only half the budget this year that it needs to stave off the immediate crisis and is struggling to do that. The organization says it needs $21.5 billion and is forecast to raise less than half of that amount.
“We only have 50 percent of the money we need to keep people alive in these places,” Laganda said. “There’s a pull toward saving lives that outpaces the equally important job of creating resilience. That’s a really problematic dynamic in the international aid architecture.”
Under U.N. climate agreements, wealthier countries are supposed to be paying to build resilience. And while that’s not specifically meant for food security, it would have the effect of strengthening communities so they could recover more quickly from a food-related crisis.
But that’s not happening either.
Those wealthier countries pledged $100 billion to help developing countries transition their energy systems and adapt to climate-related problems, from bolstering infrastructure to reducing poverty and hunger. According to the most recent estimates, the pledge is $20 billion short and the money spent so far hasn’t gone to the adaptation measures that developing countries need most.
“We know that even if all things worked as they should and donors gave money for feeding people and for the capacity for preemptive action in the future, it wouldn’t be enough,” said Ertharin Cousin, former head of the World Food Program. “We need new investment vehicles.”
“Farmers are business people. If we gave them the capital today for new seeds, new biological tools, they’d adapt,” Cousin added. “Those financial vehicles don’t exist.”
Most of the people living at the edge of famine live in countries that contributed least to the climate crisis. In northern and eastern Kenya, farmers may not fathom the idea that pumping carbon dioxide into the atmosphere has contributed to one failed rainy season after another.
“Now nobody knows when they come—sometimes three or four months later,” Maganya said. “The elders that used to predict these things and urge everyone to plant their crops—all that has gone totally haywire.”
Maganya consoles himself by thinking of the improvements—in forecasting, aid distribution, communication—that have been made over the course of his career. He thinks of the lives saved.
But, he says, as scientists, including Funk, make the link between climate change and famine clear, wealthy countries should pay to prevent yet more suffering. He notes that the latest report from the U.N. on climate change says, with “medium confidence,” that climate change is causing food insecurity in Africa.
“The confidence level is something that can be debated,” he said. “But, in any event, if that were to be accepted as a premise—that climate change is causing food shortages in Africa—then those who contributed to climate change would at the very least have a moral responsibility to respond.”