“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.

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Humanitarian innovation tested in the field: the example of the Orisa water purifier

Photo taken in Djibo by Sebastien Batangouna Banzouzi, WASH site manager at SOLIDARITES INTERNATIONAL in Burkina FASO @SOLIDARITES INTERNATIONAL

Humanitarian action is made up of commitment and concrete responses, without which it is only words. In order to provide these responses in an efficient manner, and to meet the needs of the people being helped, innovative technical solutions play a decisive role, multiplying the time saved, the number of people assisted, and the impact of the aid. This notion of innovation is present in all areas of our work (food security, health, shelter, resilience, etc.), and of course in the technical area of WASH (water, hygiene and sanitation).

The paradigm shift sometimes consists, without revolutionizing the technical solution itself, in providing actors and beneficiaries in the field with an easy-to-use, reliable response adapted to the entire spectrum of interventions, from emergency to development, in terms of individual, family or collective access to safe drinking water. This is the idea behind the Orisa water purifier proposed by Fonto De Vivo, a company co-founded by Anthony Cailleau, a specialist in R&D, and David Monnier, a former humanitarian who has worked for 14 years in a variety of difficult areas: Liberia, Iraq, Comoros, Guinea, Afghanistan… He was able to measure the need for easy and safe means of access to water for populations impacted by security, climate or epidemic crises. The development of the Orisa purifier was done, starting in 2017, in partnership with researchers from the universities of Nantes (where Anthony Cailleau and David Monnier met, and decided to found Fonto De Vivo) and Vendée. A focus group of six French NGOs was set up to specify their needs in terms of purification and related logistics. Then a design firm in Nantes and a design office in Vendée specialized in plastics finalized the product, which started to be marketed in 2021.

In concrete terms, it is a portable and autonomous purifier, modest in size (42.5 x 17 x 12cm), weighing 2.1 kg, operating by manual pumping, intuitive, and conforming to the quality guidelines for drinking water of the WHO. The ultrafiltration is done by hollow fiber membranes through which the water passes. The purifier is adaptable to different types of containers, tanks, and treats surface water (wells, streams…).

The test bed for a tool intended for humanitarian use is its implementation in the field. In this respect, the intervention carried out by the NGO SOLIDARITES INTERNATIONAL in Djibo, Burkina-Faso (emergency program), is significant, as for the potential of the Orisa purifier. The particular context of the town of Djibo, which is under blockade by armed groups, has transformed a critical situation into a humanitarian emergency. Even before the blockade, Djibo was affected by the increasing scarcity of water resources due to climate change, and was home to a large number of displaced persons in the Sahel. As of March 31, 2002, according to the Burkinabe government agency that registers internally displaced persons, there were 283,428 displaced persons in Djibo, out of a resident population of approximately 50,000. In January, armed groups forcibly displaced people from surrounding villages; according to OCHA, 36,532 people arrived in less than two months. The tension on drinking water resources was at its highest. Then the blockade was declared on February 17, laying mines on the access roads and attacking any vehicle or person attempting to enter or leave the town. Finally, armed groups sabotaged water points and water access infrastructure between February 21 and March 13: destruction of a generator in the Office National de l’Eau et de l’Assainissement network (which supplied 2/3 of the population), two of the three generators supplying the pumping stations serving the public network (reducing water production by 80%), and six of the twelve solar-powered adductions, put out of service by shooting at the storage tanks… According to estimates by the WASH cluster, at least 220. According to WASH Cluster estimates, at least 220,000 people have lost access to protected water sources as of 3/17/2022 due to these attacks. The population of Djibo, as Sébastien Batangouna, EHA SOLIDARITES INTERNATIONAL site manager in Burkina Faso, recounts, “was reduced to digging makeshift holes in the dry dam bed by hand, extracting insufficient quantities of murky water, or to drawing from a few wells or stagnant surface water. In addition, there have been numerous attacks on people collecting water. Access to water has become an issue of pressure on the population for armed groups.

Photo taken in Djibo by Sebastien Batangouna Banzouzi, WASH site manager at SOLIDARITES INTERNATIONAL in Burkina FASO @SOLIDARITES INTERNATIONAL

In this context, and in a city that is only connected by helicopter to the rest of the country, the traditional WASH responses, as explained by Lise Florin, WASH Coordinator at SOLIDARITES INTERNATIONAL in Burkina Faso, are no longer adapted: “Too dangerous to repair vandalized water points and generators, water-trucking unthinkable because water points inaccessible and fuel supply limited by the blockade, installation of bladders (flexible tanks) ruled out, because a treatment station would have been too visible and pumping difficult in makeshift holes, finally limited access to the dam for security reasons.” The only remaining solution was to treat homes and/or communities, using unconventional water sources (surface water scattered throughout the city) if necessary. A “discreet” and safe solution, therefore, which consisted in “diverting”, to use the words of Baptiste LECUYOT, Head of the EHA – Technical Expertise and Quality of Programs Unit at SOLIDARITES INTERNATIONAL headquarters, “the use of purifiers normally more suitable for home water treatment, by setting up collective filtration points where people would come to fetch filtered water, without having to set up larger facilities“. 242 community volunteers were recruited and trained, 64 filtration points were set up, and a mobile team of 50 volunteers was assigned to go out and educate households on hygiene and home water treatment. To date, 500 Orisa purifiers have been deployed in Djibo by SOLIDARITES INTERNATIONAL.

Even if the intervention of SOLIDARITES INTERNATIONAL in Djibo is still ongoing, we can already see that, as Sebastien Batangouna points out, “The handling, use, maintenance and repair of the Orisa purifiers has been easy, as has the training of the national staff and day laborers. This simplicity was reinforced, as Lise Florin reminds us, “by the tutorials made available on the Internet by Fonto De Vivo“. Lise Florin adds that, in addition to their discretion and simplicity, “these purifiers have proven to be faster than the chemical “PUR” treatment: between 120 L/H and 180 L/H for ORISA filters, compared to 40 L/H for PUR. Also less voluminous: 4 times less 20L buckets are needed to cover the same number of beneficiaries, transportation and storage are therefore easier and less expensive. Finally, the water is of better quality for the people rescued, because it is simply chlorinated after filtration to avoid recontamination of the water during transport/storage. In Djibo, these purifiers have been used intensively, from 4 to 6 hours a day, producing about 100 L/H each, or 4 days’ worth of water for a “normal” family. Of course, pumping requires a minimum of physical strength, but given the context and the emergency, this response proved to be the most relevant, efficient and discreet. It should be mentioned, however, that non-compliance (related to a supplier) was found in Djibo, on a number of Orisa purifiers. The problem was immediately recognized by Fonto De Vivo, which implemented solutions, as the purifiers were repairable: new parts (rings) were tested and sent to Burkina Faso by express mail; and, in addition to the stock of membranes already on site, new ones are being sent to replace those that had a problem (with the remote support of Fonto De Vivo, and knowing that these membranes must be changed anyway after a certain time of use)

SOLIDARITES INTERNATIONAL (which had already used the Orisa purifier in Niger in a limited way in health centers), has also deployed it in Haiti in schools, and plans to use it in Mali for emergency response. Allassane Traore, EHA Dakar coordinator, emphasizes that this tool is interesting “for interventions with transhumant populations or those affected by recurrent displacements, often forgotten by humanitarian responses and particularly at risk when it comes to access to drinking water.

@MSF, Madagascar, avril 2022

In addition to SOLIDARITES INTERNATIONAL, other NGOs use the Orisa purifier, such as MSF in Ukraine (in health care facilities) and in Madagascar (with communities). Its very good bacterial (99.999999%, i.e. LOG 8) and viral (99.999%, i.e. LOG 5) filtration performances make it an obvious infection prevention tool, but, as Jérôme Leglise, Water and Sanitation Referent at MSF’s Operational Support Pole, points out, a specific technical innovation was of particular interest to MSF: its backwashing system using purified water, limiting contamination during washing. The medical NGO considers this purifier to be particularly suitable for exploratory missions, small bases or isolated health structures, specific communities far from urban networks, and people at risk (pregnant women, immunocompromised people, young children, measles cases) in a post-consultation or hospitalization “discharge kit”.

Finally, the CDCS (Crisis and Support Center of the Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs) has ordered 405 Orisa purifiers, in order to build up a contingency stock to respond to potential emergencies (natural disasters, conflicts, pandemics…).

In the end, this tool shows that, between the challenge of developing a product and the test of the field, humanitarian innovation is – also – a form of risk-taking… necessary…

Pierre Brunet

Writter and Humanitarian


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Born in 1961 in Paris to a French father and a Spanish mother, Pierre Brunet found his first vocation as a freelance journalist. In 1994, he crossed paths with humanitarian aid and volunteered in Rwanda, which had been devastated by genocide. In early 1995, he left on a humanitarian mission in Bosnia-Herzegovina, then torn by civil war. There he took on the responsibilities of program coordinator in Sarajevo, then head of mission.

Upon his return to France at the end of 1996, he joined the headquarters of the French NGO SOLIDARITES INTERNATIONAL, for which he had gone on mission. He will be in charge of communication and fundraising, while returning to the field, as in Afghanistan in 2003, and starting to write… In 2011, while remaining involved in humanitarian work, he commits himself totally to writing, and devotes an essential part of his time to his vocation of writer.

Pierre Brunet is Vice-President of the association SOLIDARITES INTERNATIONAL. He has been in the field in the North-East of Syria, in the “jungle” of Calais in November 2015, and in Greece and Macedonia with migrants in April 2016.

Pierre Brunet’s novels are published by Calmann-Lévy:

  • January 2006: publication of his first novel “Barnum” by Calmann-Lévy, a story born from his humanitarian experience.
  • September 2008 : publication of his second novel ” JAB “, the story of a little Spanish orphan girl who grew up in Morocco and who will become a professional boxer as an adult.
  • March 2014: release of his third novel “Fenicia”, inspired by the life of his mother, a little Spanish orphan during the civil war, refugee in France, later an anarchist activist, seductress, who died in a psychiatric institute at 31 years old.
  • End of August 2017: release of his fourth novel “The Triangle of Uncertainty”, in which the author “returns” again, as in “Barnum” to Rwanda in 1994, to evoke the trauma of a French officer during Operation Turquoise.

In parallel to his work as a writer, Pierre Brunet works as a co-writer of synopses for television series or feature films, in partnership with various production companies. He also collaborates with various magazines by publishing columns or articles, particularly on international news.