World unable to cope with famine, UN says

Posted: 28 October 2002

Author: Geoffrey Lean

Global warming is helping to cause an unprecedented series of famines which is pushing the world beyond its ability to cope, according to the United Nations.

The warning - the starkest yet issued by the UN on how climate change is affecting world food supplies - comes as a second massive famine looms in Africa. The new head of the UN World Food Programme, James Morris, announced that drought in Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa is precipitating a food shortage as great as the one now afflicting southern Africa.

Harvest shortfall

Meanwhile, the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation is predicting that this year's total world harvest will fall for the fifth year in succession, while the global population continues to grow. Food stocks are falling well below critical levels and prices are soaring.

The escalating crises will add urgency to a new round of international negotiations on combating global warming taking place in New Delhi (October 23 to November 1, 2002). They will concentrate on what new measures should be taken beyond the Kyoto Protocol, which is expected to enter into force over the next few months.

Nearly six million people in Ethiopia - the country that became a byword for hunger in the 1980s - now need emergency food aid to prevent starvation. Another million people in Eritrea and three million in Sudan are in the same position after rains failed there too.

There are also food shortages in Kenya and Somalia and the WFP reckons that, in all, up to 14 million people face famine in the region - about the same number as are afflicted in Zambia, Malawi, Mozambique, Zimbabwe and other southern African countries.

Climate impact

In some countries - such as Somalia and Zimbabwe - the crisis has been greatly aggravated by conflict and government policies. But the WFP says that the two famines are "essentially the result of shifting weather patterns that in recent years have been wreaking havoc on a global scale".

A spokesman told The Independent on Sunday that "global warming is a major contributor" to the changing weather. He added: "There has been a sharp increase in weather-related natural disasters. This is a very, very serious situation."

Scientists have long predicted that droughts and floods will increase as global warming takes hold. According to the World Disasters Report, published by the Red Cross, 2000 and 2001 were the two worst years for disasters ever recorded. Since then, more than 360 natural disasters have occurred in the first nine months of this year. Drought has also struck from Australia to Mongolia, Vietnam to Sri Lanka, West Africa to Thailand. And floods affected more than 100 million people in China and more than 40 million in India, and brought the worst inundations ever to Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic.

The WFP warns the crises are becoming so frequent that the world community is "running out of the ability to cope". Although emergency food aid almost tripled over the 1990s, it was still not enough to meet growing needs. Earlier this year the WFP had to suspend help to three million women, children and elderly people in North Korea because it had run out of resources.

"The global emergency relief system is overwhelmed," said the spokesman. "I cannot recall when things were last as bad. The chickens are coming home to roost."

Geoffrey Lean is an awarding-winning environmental correspondent with The Independent (UK).Source: The Independent on Sunday (27 October 2002).