By Francesca Merlo
Pope Francis recently described hunger as “a crime that violates basic human rights”, and according to Martin Penner, spokesperson for the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP), this is a message that “cannot be ignored”.
World Food Day
As the world prepares to mark World Food Day, Penner notes that it is sobering to know that after years of decline, world hunger is rising unabated. At the moment, he says, “there are up to 811 million hungry people in the world”.
“If you look at a graph” the numbers very clearly go down.. until about 2017 when they gradually start going up. But recently, Martin Penner warns, “the rise has been quite significant”.
The recent figures
The most recent report on World Hunger was released in July and it shows that up to 161 million more men, women and children fall into hunger “as conflict, climate extremes and economic slowdowns take their toll”.
Unfortunately, it is the usual suspects that are suffering the most: Yemen, South Sudan, Afghanistan, Haiti, Somalia, Congo… “these are the places”, says Penner, “that unfortunately have been struggling for several years”.
The impact of Covid-19
All of this, Penner says, has been worsened by the Covid19 pandemic, which he describes as “a misery multiplier”. He explains that “it comes as another layer on top of challenges that the poor are already facing” and asks that we imagine the impact this pandemic must have had on families in situations in which there are already conflict, economic turmoil, and climate emergencies. In this regard, Martin Penner notes that “economic slowdowns in many countries have been exacerbated, or even caused, by the Covid-19 pandemic”. He explains that this refers mainly to job losses, in which people who were already living on the edge, hand to mouth, “lose their work as the economy contracts and subsequently can’t buy food. So they sell their assets, they sell the things they own, and the situation only gets worse. That, unfortunately, is the downwards spiral that is sometimes being seen.”
Climate change is actually one of the main factors causing hunger in the world, Penner warns… “and it’s actually getting worse”.
Luckily, he adds that “with COP26 being just around the corner, people are becoming aware of this”.
Around 200 world leaders will be meeting in Glasgow in November for COP26, the global United Nations summit on Climate Change, where countries will be asked to reveal how they are planning to tackle it and undersign new commitments.
The Holy See will be represented at COP26, and Penner believes that Pope Francis’ voice is crucial. “The attention that the Holy Father gives to the world’s hungry and vulnerable is very important”, he says. “It helps ensure that these issues stay firmly on the agenda for world leaders”. We sincerely hope that leaders attending COP26 “remember that climate and food are very closely linked, in other words: a climate crisis is a hunger crisis”.
Climate impacts have, in fact, joined conflict as a root cause of hunger, and even famine, says Penner. He uses Madagascar as an example. Struck by life-threatening droughts, 1.1 million people in the country are suffering from hunger, and of these 14,000 are in famine-like conditions. Unfortunately, he warns that this figure is expected to double by the end of the year.
In quoting a recent analysis made by the World Food Programme, Penner highlights the frightening fact that a mere 2°C rise in average global temperature will see 189 million people more going hungry in the world. A news release from the agency on Thursday warned that in this case, “vulnerable communities, a vast majority of whom rely on agriculture, fishing, and livestock and, who contribute the least to the climate crisis, will continue to bear the brunt of the impacts with limited means to cushion the blow”.
Climate and conflict
With regards to extreme climate events in conflict-affected areas. Resources are already scarce due to conflict, and climate events destroy what little there is and hamper humanitarian efforts reaching communities. An example of this is Afghanistan, where a third of the population is left reeling with hunger.
At the World Food Programme, like at its sister agencies, there are projects in place aiming to deal with this. Penner says they could be put into three categories The first is in trying to anticipate climate hazards, and so, “getting there before they turn into disasters”. “We use early warning systems to trigger financial support .. early rather than late..”, he says. Another way is to restore natural ecosystems because, he explains, “they are our natural shields against climate hazards”. And then, of course, he concludes “we need to protect the most vulnerable with safety nets and insurance against climate extremes”. We must not forget that climate and hunger are very closely linked.
World Food Day is marked annually on October 16th. This year, with October 16th being a Saturday, the World Food Programme, along with other Rome-based organisations are celebrating on Friday 15th.