“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.  

Afghanistan “As a humanitarian, I have never seen such a crisis in my life”

Isabelle Moussard-Carlsen in the center on an emergency assessment mission in Afghanistan @ Isabelle Moussard-Carlsen

An exclusive interview with Isabelle Moussard Carlsen, Head of the OCHA Office in Afghanistan.


Alain Boinet : More and more, media and humanitarian actors are talking about the risk of famine in Afghanistan. What is the reality today and how do you see the coming months in that regard ?

Isabelle Moussard-Carlsen : The number of people in Afghanistan facing hunger today is unprecedented with 23 million Afghans not knowing where their next meal is coming from. This is more than half the population. 1 in 2 children are facing acute malnutrition.

With winter temperatures dipping below zero, people have to spend more of their already dwindling household incomes on fuel and other supplies needed for winter at a time when food supplies are lowest due to harvest cycle.

This is caused by a number of aggravating factors: Afghanistan is facing the second drought in four years, a looming economic crisis, the socio-economic effects of COVID-19 and decades of conflict and natural disasters. Today, people are spending more than 80 per cent of their household budget on food.

Humanitarian organizations are increasing their response and have already reached 8 million people with food in just three months and 1.3 million with agriculture support, but much more is needed. 

Alain Boinet : What about the health structures which seem to lack staff due to lack of salaries, medicines and consumables ? 

Isabelle Moussard-Carlsen : As the crisis in Afghanistan deepens, a collapse in healthcare must be averted. Humanitarian agencies are supporting the system by providing medicine, medical supplies, paying salaries (many healthcare workers had not been paid for up to five months) and more to prevent this from happening.

From the hospitals and health facilities I have visited, both at provincial and district level, nurses, midwives and doctors told me that they continued to work without getting paid. Starting in October, they had been paid for 2 of the 5 months. What is clear is that they need more support, but at least it is some progress. These wonderful Afghan female and male health workers are preventing healthcare from collapsing by providing trauma care, reproductive, maternal, new-born and child health, among other essential services to their fellow Afghans.

Martin Griffiths, UN Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), during a meeting in Kabul with the Taliban leadership.

Alain Boinet : Martin Griffiths recently indicated in his 2022 appeal for OCHA that the largest budget is for Afghanistan, at $4.5 billion, just ahead of Syria and Yemen. Can we expect that this sum will be effectively mobilized in time to be implemented for the populations in danger ?

Shouldn’t we consider a large-scale relief operation to reach the most endangered populations ?

Isabelle Moussard-Carlsen : This year, donors contributed US$1.6 billion to the response in Afghanistan to cover immediate needs particularly in the last four months of 2021. Indeed, needs are deepening and we urge donors to generously support life-saving assistance, including food, medicines, health care and protection for 22 million people next year.

We are encouraged by the UN security council resolution on Afghanistan sanctions. The humanitarian exception will allow aid organizations to implement at the scale required. Some 160 national and international humanitarian organizations are already providing assistance in Afghanistan and it is critical that flexible and early funding is received so that they can continue to do so.

Alain Boinet : Humanitarian actors testify that among the main difficulties they face is access to the Afghan banking sector to receive funds and carry out transactions as well as the constraints of air travel and visas to reach Afghanistan. What is the situation and what consequences does it have ?

Isabelle Moussard-Carlsen : The economic situation has been extremely difficult and most particularly felt by Afghans.  Banks were closed and there was no money in the system. Doctors, teachers and civil servants has not been paid, local institutions and services are at risk. Last week’s vote for a humanitarian exception will allow aid organizations to implement what we have planned: to reach 22 million vulnerable Afghans. It also provides legal assurances to financial institutions and commercial actors and facilitate humanitarian operations.

At this critical time, we all need to come together, and the international community has a major role to play, to support the millions of Afghans that are counting on us and have exhausted all other options. 

Alain Boinet : Are the financial resources mobilized commensurate with the needs ? Are they available and do the humanitarian actors have the necessary capacity to act during the harsh winter in Afghanistan ?

Isabelle Moussard-Carlsen : Regarding access, winter does make it more difficult to access people in need and for people to access the services they need which is why it is so important that we continue to deliver aid to vulnerable communities, including winter aid that was distributed in October and November ahead of winter. Besides winter aid, humanitarians were also providing people with 3 months’ supply of food and agriculture support like wheat seeds. Access missions are also ongoing along the Saranjal Pass on the way to Ghor province and more recently in snowy and remote parts of Bamyan. In November along, OCHA conducted 17 missions, the majority of which by road. It is critical to re-establish access to remote parts of Afghanistan where needs are often the highest and many communities have not been reached in years. 

WFP trucks deliver food to remote, hard-to-reach areas in northeastern Badakhshan province before roads are blocked by snow @PAM Afghanistan

Alain Boinet : With the new Afghan government, are the humanitarian principles of neutrality, impartiality and independence respected and is it possible to have unhindered access to all populations ? What is the significance of the UNSC Resolution 2615 of December 22 for OCHA and humanitarian actors ?

Isabelle Moussard-Carlsen : As humanitarians, we continue to engage with all parties including the Taliban (as we have been for decades) to access people in need, focusing on the most vulnerable.  The humanitarian principles are the guiding principles in our engagement and essential to principled response in complex situations such as the one in Afghanistan. As before, humanitarian assistance is independent and must be based on needs as identified by needs assessments.

We are very encouraged by the UN security council resolution on Afghanistan sanctions and will allow the 160 humanitarian organizations on the ground to respond to people in need at the scale required.

 

We need you to publish each month “Humanitarian Challenges”. You can support us by making a donation on the HelloAsso website knowing that we do not benefit from tax deduction. Thank you for your generous support.

Isabelle Moussard-Carlsen

Isabelle has been engaged in the humanitarian sector since 1987.

Her first field experience was in the Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan. She subsequently spent 12 years in the field in Afghanistan, Cambodia, Kenya and Somalia.

Back in France in 1999, she first worked for four years with the Samu Social de Paris before joining ACF in January 2005 as Desk Officer.

In March 2013 she was promoted to a Regional Director position.

She has been the Director of Operations of ACF- France between August 2016 and April 2021.

Isabelle has joined OCHA Afghanistan in June 2021.