“Avoiding a hurricane of famine”!

Wheat field in Ukraine.

Already in mid-March, Antonio Guterres, Secretary General of the United Nations, declared: “We must do everything possible to avoid a hurricane of famines and a collapse of the world food system”.

On Friday, June 3, 2022 in Sochi, on the shores of the Black Sea, after 100 days of war in Ukraine, the Senegalese head of state and current president of the African Union, Macky Sall, declared to Vladimir Putin: “I came to see you, to ask you to be aware that our (African) countries (…) are victims of this crisis, economically speaking. Senegal is well placed to know this, as it imports more than 50% of its wheat from Russia.

Briefing note on the importance of Ukraine and the Russian Federation to global agricultural markets and the risks associated with the current conflict. Rome 2022 @FAO

The figures are indeed indisputable. Russia and Ukraine accounted for 30% of the world’s grain exports before the war. And according to experts, between 2018 and 2020, Africa imported half of its wheat consumption from Russia and Ukraine. The Ukrainian minister, Taras Kachka said in Davos (Le Monde, 29 and 30.5.2022) “In 2021, we exported 20 million tons of wheat and 24.6 million tons of corn, almost all by sea.

Odessa harbour, Ukraine Photo: Patrik Rastenberger/NEFCO (CC BY-NC 2.0)

But the Russian Black Sea fleet is blocking Ukrainian ports, especially Odessa. And mines have been laid at sea by the defenders to prevent a possible landing. As a result, 20 to 25 million tons of grain are blocked in Ukraine. The thousands of wagons, trucks and barges mobilized to transport the grain to the ports of Constanta in Romania and to the Baltic ports will not empty the stocks.

On the Russian side, the sanctions are blocking export logistics and the Swift bank settlement system, which the Russians can no longer use, is limiting or even preventing all payments, particularly for African and Middle Eastern buyers, and therefore all supplies.

Shortage and price increase.

As a result, the price of wheat has increased by about 40 to 45% since the beginning of the year. In Paris, the price has risen from 280 euros per ton to 400 euros. The Senegalese president also expressed alarm that the soaring price of fertilizers, mainly produced in Russia, Ukraine and Belarus, “could cause a collapse of “20 to 50%” of grain yields in Africa this year.

If no solution is found soon, the paralysis will extend to 2023. Taras Kachka, Ukrainian minister, says that “80% of the arable land is planted and we will have a wheat production comparable to that of 2021”. But if stocks remain full, due to a lack of exports, where will the harvests, which will now begin in July for wheat and in August for corn, be put?

He concludes, “If we do not solve this disposal problem, 2023 will be worse. It will be worse for Ukraine and its farmers because of the lack of money to buy fuel and to harvest. As well as for the countries and populations that will lack wheat, barley, corn, sunflower, fertilizers and seeds!

During Macky Sall’s meeting with Vladimir Putin, the Russian president said “We are ready to offer safe passage to ships using these ports, including Ukrainian ships”. Of course, this would imply that certain sanctions be lifted and that these ports be “demined”. It is clear that there is still a long way to go, and time is running out. How can we deliver arms and strengthen sanctions while at the same time easing some of them for the export of grain from the two belligerents engaged in intense fighting!

In the Horn of Africa. ©EU/ECHO/Mo Dahir (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

In the absence of negotiations and concessions, Amin Awad, the UN crisis coordinator for Ukraine warns “Failure to open these ports will lead to famine, destabilization and mass migration in the world. According to him, 1.4 billion people could be affected.

Not only must the humanitarian community engage in an exceptional and sustainable effort in Ukraine, but they must also prepare for the risks of hurricanes, especially in Africa and the Middle East, in the most fragile countries weakened by the Covid 19 pandemic and, for some, victims of a terrible drought as in the Horn of Africa and the Sahel.

War, pandemic, climate change, drought and lack of cereals, fertilizers and seeds, the emergency equation is there and we must mobilize as never before. Already, on June 2, Chad declared a “food emergency”.

The huge challenge we face is that humanitarian organizations, and even the WFP (United Nations World Food Program) and the FAO (United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization), are dependent on sanctions. So what can they do?

“We take food from the hungry to give to the starving,” says David Beasley, the head of the WFP.

The humanitarian response is necessary. Do the maximum and beyond when it is a question of survival, even life and death. We have to get out of the habit, ask ourselves the same questions as the populations and find and anticipate the best answers to each particular situation. Because if humanitarian organizations do not have the global answer, they are the best placed on the ground, with the populations and the authorities, to react, case by case.

Food aid distribution in South Sudan. Photo ONU/Tim McKulka. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Let’s stock up on food as soon as possible and in quantity, especially to fight malnutrition. Let’s look for alternative solutions with the distribution of food vouchers and cash transfer programs.  Let’s develop certain crops (cassava, millet, sweet potatoes, cowpeas), let’s coordinate better with local actors, let’s prioritize relief efforts and reduce agricultural losses.

We can also contribute where we have added value and leverage with the Global Alliance for Food Security (GAFS) and the French initiative FARM (Food and Agriculture Resilience Mission) by acting against speculation, adapting and strengthening solidarity mechanisms and local production capacities. Can rice, whose prices are still stable, be an alternative?

To prevent the “hurricane of famines” that could claim more victims than the conflict in Ukraine, the solutions for a “secure maritime corridor” on the scale of the quantities to be transported are not numerous. The option of going by force entails a major risk, that of a naval battle in the Black Sea and its complete closure. There is the proposal of President Macky Sall to put the food sector “out of sanctions” and to allow the export of Ukrainian and Russian wheat. This is what is at stake in the ongoing negotiations between Ukraine, Turkey and Russia. Another option is for the main wheat exporters, excluding Ukraine and Russia, Europe (36 million tons), the United States (21 million tons) and Australia (25 million tons), according to estimates for 2022-2023, to organize a real emergency sea bridge to avoid famine and hunger riots.  The countdown has already begun.

Alain Boinet.

President of Défis Humanitaires.

PS/ Your donation (make a donation) allows us to publish and develop Humanitarian Challenges, a free and independent website. Thank you for your support.  

Ukraine: from war to humanitarianism!  

Leonivda Netchiboy, 49, reacts as she visits the grave of her husband, Pavlo, an enlisted Ukrainian soldier who was killed in an artillery strike near Kiev in March, in a cemetery in the village of Balabyne, on the outskirts of Zaporizhzhia, on April 30, 2022, the 66th day of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. (Photo par Ed JONES / AFP)

In Ukraine, the war is concentrated in the East and in the South and it has just taken a major turn with the supply of tanks, cannons, planes, helicopters and the massive commitment of the United States with an aid of 33 billion dollars, including 20 billion in military aid.

At the same time, Russia has just cut off gas to Poland and Bulgaria and other countries will probably follow, with serious economic and social consequences, especially in Europe. But, let’s not forget, the main victim is the Ukrainian population facing a war of high intensity of destruction!

Humanitarian aid in times of emergency is triggered either by war, disaster or epidemic. It is by better understanding the conflict in terms of the objectives and means of the actors, in its possible duration on a territory, in its intensity that we can also anticipate and organize the best possible relief.

In Ukraine, the fighting is concentrated in the East with Vladimir Putin’s stated objective of taking over the entire Donbass and the South of the country, where a large Russian-speaking population lives, to establish territorial continuity with the Crimea already annexed in February 2014. Is he thinking of going as far as Odessa, thus depriving Ukraine of any outlet to the Black Sea, which would be catastrophic for it. This will probably depend on the outcome of the battle in Donbass.

If one looks at a map, the battlefield in the east on an 800 km front resembles a crescent that Russia seeks to close at both ends to encircle the bulk of the Ukrainian army by taking Sievierodonetsk and Lyssychansk, which are at the heart of the ongoing battle and are resisting. The other axis of the Russian offensive starts from the south in the direction of Pokrovsk to close the trap.

It is a decisive battle that began on April 18 and explains the decisions taken on April 26 at the American base in Ramstein, Germany, where more than 40 countries met under the leadership of the United States. Without heavy equipment and regular supplies, the Ukrainian army would be overwhelmed. This is why, in this war of attrition, the Russian air force is now bombing railway stations, railway junctions and bridges in the west to slow down the flow of military equipment from Poland, 1500 km from the Donbass front!

The human consequences are catastrophic for Ukraine and its population, which risks seeing the entire Donbass region methodically destroyed, as in Marioupol. According to Colonel Michel Goya, a military expert, the Russians are lining up 2200 artillery pieces and massively bombarding the front lines, cities and towns which are all bastions of resistance. Even before the offensive, the Ukrainian authorities encouraged the population to evacuate and seek shelter further west.

The destruction caused by this great war continues to grow and accumulate in a very short time. That is why the United Nations launched a new appeal on April 25 to anticipate humanitarian needs until the end of August and beyond. The numbers are just staggering. There are currently 15.7 million Ukrainians in need of relief. There will be 24 million in the coming months, more than half of the total population. The bombings are methodically destroying buildings and houses, hospitals and schools and now all the logistical infrastructure for supplies, not to mention the destruction of economic activities and the loss of jobs and especially human lives.

According to the FAO and FEWS NET (Famine Early Warning Systems Network), government estimates anticipate a loss of 22 to 50% of the agricultural production of this great cereal country. President Volodymir Zelensky recently declared that Ukraine needed 7 billion dollars each month! This shows the considerable dimension of the aid needs in Ukraine in the space of two months!

Humanitarian aid continues to grow and must expand its deployment in the East. The World Food Program (WFP) and its Ukrainian and international partners have delivered food and cash aid to 2.4 million people since February 24. UNICEF and its partners have provided access to clean water for 400,000 people and medical assistance for 850,000 people. The Cash Working Group (CWG) and its partners have distributed $44.6 million to 314,000 people.

Three trucks filled with essential items for the Ukraine with the involvement and in partnership with Transports Leleu @SOLIDARITES INTERNAITONAL

International humanitarian organizations have been active since February and some of them were already present in the Donbass since 2014-2015. But they are faced with constraints of time, logistical capacity, distance and coordination with Ukrainian civilian actors. Moreover, they must adapt and completely revise their way of operating. This is a high-intensity war that they are not used to. Even in Bosnia-Herzegovina, I can personally attest to the fact that between 1992 and 1995, the intensity was much lower and the conditions of access to the populations in danger much easier, even in Sarajevo. Secondly, the destruction is extremely rapid and large-scale, and they are overwhelmed by the scale of the needs, which are increasing every day. Finally, Ukraine is not a failed state.

On the contrary, it is an organized state with effective public services and great skills and capacities. Humanitarian organizations arrived while Ukrainians were deploying relief supplies all over the territory since the beginning. In Mykolaïv, a place of intense fighting and a Ukrainian lock to Odessa, the town hall has organized a regional humanitarian staff in charge of coordinating aid to the population which has to face new challenges such as the destruction by the Russians of the pumping pipes in the Boug river which has deprived the population of drinking water for weeks.

In this context, humanitarians must first come to support the civilian structures that are operating. Their specific added value should be added to and reinforce the Ukrainian structures (municipalities, public services, associations). NGOs must demonstrate their added value, which is real.

They must also ask themselves the question of humanitarian needs in the part of Donbass controlled by the pro-Russian separatists and the possibility of accessing them when Russia seems to have taken charge of the aid on the spot and in the zones that have passed under their control.

Two months after the beginning of this war, coming from Moscow where he had met Vladimir Putin, the UN Secretary General, Antonio Guterres, went to Kiev where he declared (link) “I also know that words of solidarity are not enough. I am here to focus on the needs on the ground and to intensify operations. While meeting with President Volodymyr Zelensky, two Russian cruise missiles were fired at Kiev. 

Secretary-General António Guterres (center) visits the residential areas of Irpin, Kyiv Oblast, Ukraine. @UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

The first hybrid war. This war uses all possible means well beyond the battlefield. From multiple economic sanctions, the exclusion of Russia from certain international organizations, cyberwarfare, information warfare and diplomacy, the suppression of sports events to the banning of artists, conductors, cultural events that border on unnecessary, humiliating and counterproductive discrimination.

The International Monetary Fund’s new Panorama on Growth and its chief economist, Pierre-Olivier Gourinchas, sound the alarm. Under the effect of the war in Ukraine and soaring inflation, the IMF anticipates “a collapse of Ukrainian GDP by 35%”. It also estimates that “the sanctions will plunge Russia into recession (- 8.5%).

But this crisis will hit the whole world with a strong revision of GDP growth (production of wealth by country) with expected declines in growth of 1% (France) to 2.5% (Germany). Inflation is revised upwards with an average of 5.7% for advanced countries and 8.7% for the emerging and developing world. Soaring grain prices (wheat, corn, barley and staple foods) will have a strong impact in North Africa and the Middle East in particular. To the point that Kristalina Georgieva, Managing Director of the IMF, warns of food insecurity and the need for international coordination to address it.

A geopolitical tsunami.

The Ukrainian Minister of Regional Development, Oleksiy Chernyshov, told the daily Le Figaro (20.4.2022) that “14,000 residential buildings have been reduced to ruins, 1,100 schools damaged and more than 400 infrastructures (bridges, roads, railroads…) destroyed. That was before the new offensive on the Donbass!

We are now engaged in an escalation. How far will it go? Where is the red line of cobelligerence? Will the Russians open new fronts, which are not lacking, from Moldova to Georgia? Could there be a risk of a tactical nuclear demonstration? Not to mention that this is the first time a war has been fought in a country with 13 nuclear power plants! Although the diplomatic route is no longer a priority in the immediate future with the offensive on the Donbass, this is undoubtedly the meaning of President Macron’s two-hour telephone conversation with President Putin on May 3. What decision could Vladimir announce on May 9, the day of the victory over the Third Reich?

During his visit to Kiev, Antonio Guterres also said that Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine was a violation of the territorial integrity of Ukraine and the UN Charter. He added that the Security Council had failed to live up to its primary objective of preventing or ending the war. This is an understatement when Russia, one of the 5 permanent members of the UN Security Council, initiated this war with the benevolence of another member, China. After this failure, how will the UN come out of this war?

War in Eastern Ukraine, Krasnohorivka @Tatyana Tkachuk

We must remember and emphasize that this is the first inter-state war in Europe since 1945. We can think that after this great geopolitical shift, Europe and the world will never be like before. The seismic impact of this war is still in its infancy. How will the Merkel era be judged in the future? What will be the consequences of German rearmament? The European Union itself will be affected. It is the philosopher Paul Thibaud, former director of the magazine “Esprit”, a moderate mind, who writes in the newspaper Le Monde (23-24.2.2022): “…the new continental situation must be matched by a new configuration of the European Union, something like the “federation of nation-states” evoked by Jacques Delors”.

All the more so since we believe that a strategic hiatus is emerging between a Europe that supports Ukrainian independence in the face of Russia, which will always remain a neighbouring country for us, and the United States, which wants to defeat Russia and thus weaken China. The appeal of the President of the Republic, Emmanuel Macron, to the Russian President, Vladimir Putin, is undoubtedly part of this strategic perspective.

While waiting for the next step, where everything is possible, including the worst, a massive humanitarian solidarity must be our collective response to the human suffering in Ukraine, without forgetting the International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and the war crimes committed in Boutcha, which could be reproduced elsewhere in this war that is likely to last.  

Alain Boinet.  

PS/ Your donation (make a donation) allows us to publish and develop Humanitarian Challenges, a free and independent website. Thank you for your support.