A quarter of the world's population on brink of triple crisis, warns ActionAid

10th of October, 2011 (ActionAid Bangladesh) – As the global population hits 7 billion this month, ActionAid has today warned that a triple crisis of climate change, depleted natural resources and rocketing food prices, could dwarf the world’s ability to feed them all. 

Based on new research in 28 poor countries, ActionAid’s report ‘On the Brink: Who’s best prepare for a climate and hunger crisis?’ reveals which poor nations are most prepared for this triple crisis and which are perilously close to the brink. The 10 countries ranked most vulnerable – DRC, Burundi, South Africa, Haiti, Bangladesh, Zambia, India, Sierra Leone, Ethiopia and Rwanda - account for nearly a quarter of the world’s population. Countries most ready to face the triple crisis include Brazil, Malawi, Rwanda, Ethiopia and Tanzania. ActionAid warns that the world is coming to the end of an era of cheap food; that large scale agriculture has depleted the natural resources that sustained it; and that food prices - driven by rich nations’ insatiable demand for biofuel and food commodities - will continue to rise, unless urgent action is taken.

Bangladesh continues to make strides in reducing hunger in the country, with the number of undernourished people dropping to 27 per cent as of January 2011. These gains are severely threatened, however, by the impacts of climate change and skyrocketing food prices. Bangladesh is ranked in our top five most vulnerable countries to climate change and hunger, with devastating predictions for much of Bangladesh over the coming years. And while the government has some good adaptation plans in place, this is unlikely to prove sufficient to deal with the looming climate crisis and the dire predictions this will have in Bangladesh. As such, Bangladesh is ranked as the fourth most vulnerable country in the scorecard ‘vulnerability’ index.

As of April 2011, rice and wheat prices in Bangladesh were 42 per cent higher than they were a year ago. With nearly half of Bangladesh’s 135 million people already living below the poverty line, higher food prices will have a severe impact on poor people’s ability to buy enough food. Only 7.65 per cent of the national budget is devoted to agriculture and more resources are needed to help boost agriculture. Estimates suggest that Bangladesh will need to produce 30 million more tonnes of rice each year to achieve self-sufficiency in food production. To meet this goal, Bangladesh introduced an “Input Distribution Card” to nine million smallholder farmers to obtain cash subsidies for electricity and fuel for irrigation, and fertiliser at fixed prices. Despite these initiatives, it’s predicted that rice production will fall by 3.9 per cent each year due to a more erratic monsoon season caused by climate change.

Bangladesh faces serious water-related challenges due to climate change, including scarcity of fresh water, increased incidents of flooding and river bank erosion, frequent and prolonged drought, as well as wider areas affected by salinity. The country’s early warning system for floods, cyclones and storm surges is considered state-of-the-art, and the government is expanding community-based disaster preparedness. Still, more than 80,000ha, which is approximately one per cent of arable land, is lost every year to climate change and urbanization.

Overall coverage of safety nets in Bangladesh is low. However, the government has recently increased spending on safety net programs, as evidenced by the creation of an Employment Generation Program. While the discontinuation of the Micro-Nutrient Supplementation Programme could be seen as a step backwards, the second phase of the Health, Nutrition and Population Sector Programme (HNPSP) is a good sign of attempts to provide social security nets for the population. A new school feeding programme, launched in 2011 for some 73,000 urban working children – 60 per cent of whom are girls – is expected to improve both education and nutrition rates.

While women play a central role in agriculture, social norms and customs limit their mobility, and in turn, their opportunities, leaving many to act as landless farmers who depend on casual labour and other irregular sources of income.

ActionAid’s Chief Executive Joanna Kerr said:“Children born at the end of this month will join millions facing a unique ‘trilemma’, never before witnessed in history.  How sustainable our expanding population is will depend entirely on how we tackle the interlocking crisis of climate change, dwindling resources and rocketing food prices. This year’s famine in East Africa was a harrowing example of how overexploited ecosystems, erratic weather and soaring food prices when left unchecked have catastrophic consequences for poor people. We urge world leaders meeting at the G20 next month to scale up investment in women and small farms in poor countries, deliver the climate cash promised to help poor people adapt to climate change and eliminate the biofuel targets that are driving land grabs in Africa, Asia and the Americas. With 78 million more children to feed each year by 2050, there is not a minute to lose.”

ActionAid’s key findings reveal that:

  • At least 10 countries, accounting for more than 1.5 billion of the world's population, are highly vulnerable to a climate-related food crisis.  Overall, climate change could add another half a billion people to those facing chronic hunger around the world by 2050. Every rural community surveyed across Africa, Asia and the Americas said that erratic and extreme weather was crippling their ability to feed themselves.
  • Unsustainable farming practices and an unprecedented rush from foreign investors to control resources such as minerals, oil, biofuel and water, could leave millions of the poorest people without enough arable land to produce food. In Africa alone, over 6 million hectares of degraded farmland must be regenerated to meet the demand for food from a population set to double by 2050. 
  • A dangerous new era of high food prices is set to push 44 million more people into poverty. The demand for biofuel – produced from wheat, corn, soybean and sugarcane - means that food prices will keep rising unless rich countries find alternative sources of energy.

ActionAid urges world leaders meeting at next month’s G20 to put the triple crisis at the top of the agenda. It is calling for: greater investment in small farms in poor countries where the majority of poor people’s food is grown; immediate delivery of the climate cash needed to help poor farmers climate-proof their agriculture; binding cuts in rich countries’ carbon emissions; the creation of a system of pan-regional food reserves and the immediate elimination of biofuel targets that are driving land grabs in Africa, Asia and the Americas.

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Editors' notes

From most to least vulnerable: Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, South Africa, Haiti, Bangladesh, Zambia, India, Sierra Leone, Ethiopia, Rwanda, Liberia, Tanzania, Guatemala, Nepal, Pakistan, Mozambique, Cambodia, Lesotho, Vietnam, Kenya, Malawi, China, Brazil, Nigeria, Uganda, Senegal, The Gambia,Ghana.

  • Which countries are most prepared for the triple crisis?

From most to least prepared: Brazil, Malawi, Rwanda, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Nepal, Uganda, Bangladesh, Haiti, South Africa, China, Lesotho, Zambia, Burundi, Ghana, Liberia, Sierra Leone, India, Mozambique, Nigeria, Guatemala, Vietnam, The Gambia, Kenya, Cambodia, Senegal, DRC, Pakistan.

  • How did ActionAid carry out its research?

ActionAid’s report surveys 28 developing countries. We examined the record of these countries in two core areas: overall vulnerability to the climate/hunger crunch, and key policy measures that can reduce vulnerability. These are measured by our vulnerability and capacity /preparedness indicators (see tables 1and 2 in the report). This enables us to determine the most appropriate strategies for tackling hunger and pinpoint the areas that will need the most attention – now and in the future. The scorecard vulnerability index assesses countries’ vulnerability to increasing hunger in the face of climate change. It uses current hunger levels and child malnutrition rates to assess underlying food insecurity. It then looks at pre-existing environmental and land degradation as a simple proxy for likely vulnerabilities of the agricultural sector in the present and in the future. Our capacity and preparedness index gauges policy interventions that can mitigate hunger and climate risks, such as increased support for agriculture, rural development and smallholder farmers, while also assessing countries’ plans to adapt their agricultural sectors to increasing pressures from climate change.

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