Ukraine, food crisis, humanitarian aid. Where are we heading ?

A woman (3rd R), evacuating with belongings, protects her ears after an explosion on a bridge over the Oskil River as black smoke rises in the frontline city of Kupiansk, Kharkiv region, on September 24, 2022 (Photo by Yasuyoshi CHIBA / AFP)

Where is the war in Ukraine going? This editorial seeks to analyse the breakdown in the situation since Vladimir Putin’s declaration on 21 September, with its consequences. It seeks to anticipate what might happen in order to plan the appropriate humanitarian aid.

Défis Humanitaire is an independent website which publishes articles under the responsibility of their author in order to provide information, analysis and recommendations useful for humanitarian action.

The Ukrainian counter-offensive in the Kharkiv region and the recapture of many towns has given Vladimir Putin a shock and he has ordered the mobilisation of 300,000 men and the annexation of the Oblasts (regions) of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson and Zaporidjia, celebrated on 30 September in Red Square in Moscow. Once again, the Russian president threatened to use all means at his disposal, warning “This is not a bluff”.

The response was immediate on the Ukrainian side, with President Zelinsky signing a document calling for rapid integration into NATO, while declaring that the goal was the recapture of all occupied Ukrainian territories, including Crimea.

Ukrainian soldiers ride on an armored vehicle outside Kiev, Ukraine, Saturday, April 2, 2022.  (AP Photo/Vadim Ghirda) (CC BY 2.0)

In the West, the condemnation of the annexation is unanimous, people start dreaming of a Ukrainian victory and do not seem to believe in the threat of using weapons of mass destruction. The American president, Joe Biden, declares “don’t do it”, announces the sending of new weapons in numbers, reaffirms unconditional support while remaining circumspect about the American response. The French and German presidents are working together to form a common front in a European Union that is both united and divided on the final objective, between a total war and the containment of a weakened Russia with a political solution.

Russia vetoed on Friday 30 September a UN Security Council resolution condemning the annexation of Ukrainian territory. The draft was approved by 10 of the 15 members of the Council, with Russia voting against. Four members abstained, Brazil, China, India and Gabon.

The evidence is that we have taken a major step in military escalation without knowing how far it can take us. The sabotage of the Nord Stream pipelines in the Baltic Sea is a foretaste of what may come next. But more serious is the real risk of using tactical nuclear weapons in accordance with Russian military doctrine.

“It’s not a bluff”.

If the Ukrainian army pursues the reconquest of separatist territories now considered Russian by the authorities in Moscow, can we be sure that Vladimir Putin will never use such weapons, knowing that his fate is intimately linked to that of this war? And if these weapons are used in Ukraine, which is not a member of NATO, how will the West respond? It seems to me that we should take this hypothesis more seriously in case Russia backs down on the battlefield, risking a change of power in Moscow for its president. We should take this hypothesis seriously for the Ukrainian people themselves, especially as we know that the nuclear “alert posture” of the countries holding these weapons is already activated, in France as elsewhere.

Le nuage atomique à Nagasaki en 1945 (CC BY 2.0)

In any case, as far as they are concerned, humanitarians must also raise their alert posture and prepare for a war that will not only last but also intensify. The number of victims and destruction can unfortunately only increase and we must prepare for the worst, to be ready, as much as possible, to help the victims. Let us remember the means used in Syria.

From now on, everything is possible and the head of the Kremlin is calling for a war against the West, which will probably not be without consequences even outside Ukraine, as we are seeing these days in Burkina Faso after Mali.

Many questions arise. Can the Ukrainian army militarily regain control of all its territory? Will Russia use weapons of mass destruction that would give it an advantage? How will the West react in this case? What impact will winter have on the course of the war? How will European public opinion cope with energy restrictions and price increases? Will the Russians carry out destabilising actions elsewhere than in Ukraine? Is Putin seriously ill and could the Russian army collapse?

How far will the global food crisis go?

Among the consequences of this war, there is for many countries and their population, the question of the supply of wheat, cereals, fertilizers coming from Ukraine or Russia (A global run for life ; Avoiding a “hurricane of famine”). Where are we with the agreement that Ukraine and Russia ratified on 22 July in Istanbul under the aegis of Turkey and the United Nations?

The BC Vanessa, a WFP chartered vessel carrying Ukrainian grain to Afghanistan as part of the Black Sea Grain Initiative. UN Photos / Levent Kulu (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Before the war, Ukraine was exporting around 6 million tonnes of cereals per month according to Agritel, a reference consultancy firm on agricultural sectors. Thanks to the Black Sea corridor, since August, more than 5 million tonnes had been exported by 27 September. Agritel estimates that Ukraine could export 12 million tons by the end of the year, against 18 million tons previously, while specifying that this remains “fragile, tense and volatile”. According to Gautier Le Molgat of Agritel on RFI, the food crisis is far from over, especially since this war has amplified the food tension caused by climate change, the Covid-19 pandemic and conflicts.

At a press conference in New York on 13 September, Amir Abdulla (UN Black Sea Coordinator) and Rebeca Grynspan (Director General of UNCTAD) said that they wanted to increase the number of ships in the Black Sea, that the destinations of these ships were similar to those before the war, and that while there had been a drop in international grain prices, this trend was not always reflected at the national level. They also noted that Russian fertiliser exports remained at a low level. It should be noted that four humanitarian ships were chartered by the WFP for 120,000 tonnes of wheat for the Horn of Africa, Yemen and Afghanistan.

For its part, the European Commission announced on 5 September that Ukraine would accede to a Convention on transit and simplification, allowing for easier movement of goods, and the elimination of customs duties and VAT on the import of vital goods for Ukrainians. This exemption would also apply to charitable or philanthropic organisations approved by the competent authorities in the Member States.

In a well-documented note “Analysis of the global food crisis and its links with the war in Ukraine”, the humanitarian NGO “Solidarités international” conducted a survey in the countries where it is active. In the Central African Republic (CAR), it found a 28.6 to 33% increase in prices depending on the type of flour. In Sudan, food prices have almost tripled. In West Africa, there is an estimated shortfall of 1.2 to 1.5 million tonnes of fertiliser from Russia and Ukraine, equivalent to 10 to 20 million tonnes of grain. The association makes the following observation: “On the one hand, the number of people in need of assistance is increasing and on the other, food aid is increasingly expensive to implement (cost of food and oil for transporting food).

Distribution of food supplies in Mozambique @Solidarités International

Finally, the Russian president criticised the Black Sea export mechanism, saying that his own food and fertiliser exports would continue to suffer from sanctions. Whether this is true or not, the Black Sea initiative is fragile.

Helping humanitarian aid.

In Ukraine, the UN’s (OCHA) humanitarian needs assessment rose from $1.1 billion at the beginning of March to $2.25 billion in April and $4.3 billion at the beginning of August. Winter and the need for heating could increase this amount of aid for 17 million Ukrainians, whose numbers are expected to rise as the fighting continues.

For the record, Ukraine already has 7.5 million refugees, 7 million displaced people in the country. According to the UN, 580 humanitarian partners are helping 13.4 million people throughout the country. This is an opportunity to recall a request made by humanitarian organisations during a recent meeting in Paris at the Crisis and Support Centre of the Ministry of Europe and Foreign Affairs, to ask the Ukrainian and Russian authorities to respect the principles of International Humanitarian Law (IHL) and to facilitate the action of humanitarians, not to hinder it.

Two recent reports on humanitarian action (GHAR and ANALP) highlight the growing gap between humanitarian needs and the means available to meet them. In our previous editorial we already reported that the UN humanitarian appeal this year amounted to $46.3 billion and that only $15 billion had been raised by the end of the first half of the year. According to these reports, half of the UN’s appeals for people in crisis countries receive less than 50% of the resources needed and about a quarter of them receive 75% of the bare necessities to survive, while the number of people at risk is now 306 million worldwide, 90.4 million more than before the COVID-19 pandemic!

Our observation is that humanitarian needs are seriously underfunded and that international aid is in danger of running out! Will we soon have to launch an emergency appeal for international humanitarian aid? Among the ways to respond to this funding crisis, these reports suggest broadening the donor base and better targeting funding to countries in crisis. More concretely, we can envisage an increase in the percentage of GNI (Gross National Income) dedicated to humanitarian aid. In France, for example, although considerable progress has been made by the Crisis and Support Centre of the Quai d’Orsay, humanitarian aid still only represents 1% of France’s Official Development Assistance compared to an average of 10% for OECD countries! What is the problem?

Mali, 2021 @Solidarités International

Humanitarian aid is in danger of being cut off. In Somalia, where some 213,000 people are in “imminent danger of death” according to the UN, due to famine and drought, only 70% of vital needs are covered. In Afghanistan, where 23 million people are facing hunger, only 42% of the $4.4 billion needed by the UN and its partners has been funded. Should half the population be left to starve?

Crucial questions and essential lessons.

These are crucial issues which are both specific and interdependent and which interact with each other. One of the characteristics of Humanitarian Challenges is to highlight these links and to establish the relationship between geopolitics and humanitarianism in the face of major challenges in order to be more effective in helping populations at risk.

Will Russian aggression be contained without resorting to the use of weapons of mass destruction for the populations in Ukraine and the risk of collateral effects?

Shouldn’t the export of wheat, cereals and fertilisers from Ukraine and Russia meet the needs of the countries most threatened by the spectre of hunger? We must also learn the lessons of this situation now by changing food and agricultural practices towards greater self-sufficiency for the poorest and most dependent countries.

Will the international humanitarian eco-system succeed in meeting the challenges it faces?

I sincerely hope that this article will be useful to you and that you will be able to share it with your colleagues and friends to whom it could also be useful. I also thank you for the support of your donation, however small (HelloAsso), which should enable us to publish future editions in the service of the humanitarian cause. In advance, a big THANK YOU.

Alain Boinet.

Président de Défis Humanitaires.

“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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