Unprecedented Pre-COVID-19 Acute Food Insecurity in Sub-Saharan Africa
The post was written by Shraddhanand Shukla (1), Chris Funk (2,1), Greg Husak (1), Frank Davenport (1), Vanessa Roy (3) and Peter Thomas (3).
(1) Climate Hazards Center, Department of Geography, University of California, Santa Barbara, California, USA
(2) US Geological Survey, Earth Resources Observation and Science Center, Sioux Falls, South Dakota, USA
(3) Famine Early Warning Systems Network, Washington, DC, USA
Food insecurity is on the rise globally. At present, according to the United States Agency of International Development (USAID)-funded Famine Early Warning Systems Network (FEWS NET), up to 113 million people in 46 countries (most of whom are in SSA) are likely to require emergency food assistance, a projected 140% increase over 2015. Food insecurity is categorized using Integrated Phase Classification’s (IPC) Acute Food Insecurity (AFI) Classification, which ranks AFI from “Minimal/None” (IPC Phase 1) to “Catastrophe/Famine” (IPC Phase 5). FEWS NET’s compilation of these food insecurity reports provides a stark overview of the regions in SSA with high, and increasing, food insecurity risks. Historically high levels of AFI associated with Crisis (IPC Phase 3) and Emergency (IPC Phase 4), and recent substantial increases in AFI in SSA since 2015, as well as an ongoing massive locust crisis, make SSA particularly vulnerable to additional food security shocks due to direct and indirect impacts of COVID-19. There is concern that the COVID-19 pandemic will disrupt school feeding programs, agricultural and other livelihood activities, and the distribution of food, seeds, fertilizer, and veterinary supplies, thus further exacerbating food insecurity. At present, FEWS NET expects a 25% increase in the population needing emergency food assistance in 2020 due to COVID-19-related impacts, relative to estimates for 2020 prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Early assessments by the United Nations’ Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) indicate that SSA countries generally have high-demand side exposure to COVID-19-related impacts, mainly due to limited savings and inadequate access to public safety nets, as well as greater reliance on food imports––all of which are likely to be adversely impacted due to the pandemic. Here, we highlight the existing unprecedented level of AFI in SSA to provide important context as policymakers globally (including international development and relief agencies) contemplate the possible impacts of the pandemic on food insecurity and mitigation plans.
Conflict, climatic, and economic shocks are the primary contributors to the record increase in food insecurity in SSA in the past few years. Conflicts during recent years have contributed to food insecurity in the region of Liptako-Gourma (bordering areas of Mali, Niger, and Burkina Faso), parts of Nigeria, Sudan, South Sudan, and Democratic Republic of Congo, among other regions of SSA. Climatic events––such as droughts in 2015, 2016, 2017, and 2019-2020––helped push millions of people into AFI. In each of these crises, the impacted populations were very large, ranging from 13 to 26 million. During the 2015-16 El Niño and the 2016-17 La Niña, climate change increased sea surface temperatures (SST), exacerbating the intensity of African droughts.
Figure 1: (a) Worst Integrated Phase Classification (IPC) acute food insecurity level reported by FEWS NET between April 2011 to February 2020; (b) Percentage of time during April 2011 to February 2020 that a given region reported Crisis (IPC Phase 3) or worse acute food insecurity; (c) Percentage of FEWS NET-monitored area in East, West, and Southern Africa that reported Crisis (IPC Phase 3) or worse outcomes during this period; (d) Peak estimates of population needing emergency food assistance (IPC Phase 3 and above) in countries monitored by FEWS NET in East, West, and Southern Africa; (e) Variation of annual Consumer Price Index (CPI) Food Prices Anomaly (relative to past 5 years’ mean) during 2005 to 2018 for Africa and World, (f) Linear trend in percentage of income share held by the bottom four population quintiles in several of African countries. *Source of (a) to (d) is USAID’s FEWS NET, source of (e) is FAO and (f) is World Bank.
Figure 1a composites nearly a decade of IPC AFI reports to show the worst IPC phase reported since April 2011. Most of these countries reported Crisis (IPC Phase 3) AFI at least once, especially in East Africa (EA) and western Africa (WA). EA stands out as the region with the worst AFI, with many areas in this region experiencing Emergency (IPC Phase 4), and two countries (Somalia and South Sudan) reporting Famine (IPC Phase 5) during this period. Figure 1b further emphasizes the susceptibility of EA to food insecurity. Since April 2011, the majority of Somalia, South Sudan, and substantial parts of Sudan, Ethiopia, and Kenya have reported Crisis (IPC Phase 3) or worse outcomes, requiring emergency food assistance. Several parts of these countries have reported Crisis (IPC Phase 3) or worse outcomes more than 30 percent of the time, and some parts have reported Crisis phase more than 60 percent of the time since April 2011. Similarly, parts of WA (in Nigeria, Niger, and Chad) and southern Africa (SA) (in Zimbabwe) reported Crisis (IPC Phase 3) more than 30 percent of the time.
Figure 1c shows the temporal progression of the percent of FEWS NET-monitored regional areas of EA, WA, and SA that reported Crisis (IPC Phase 3) or worse levels of AFI from April 2011 to February 2020. Once again, the EA region stands out, where the percentage of the regional area experiencing Crisis (IPC Phase 3) outcomes reached approximately 40 percent in July 2011. Note that the drought in 2011 led to Famine (IPC Phase 5) in Somalia, resulting in the deaths of an estimated 260,000 Somalis. Furthermore, in EA, the percentage of the regional area experiencing Crisis (IPC Phase 3) outcomes since 2016 has remained above 10 percent, and reached up to approximately 50 percent as recently as in June 2019. According to the most recent report in February 2020, many areas of EA, including in South Sudan, Ethiopia, Somalia, and Sudan, are likely to experience Crisis (IPC Phase 3) or worse outcomes. In the WA region, more than 10 percent of the regional area experienced Crisis (IPC Phase 3) outcomes. Finally, in the SA region, following the strong 2015-16 El Niño-driven drought in the region, the percentage of the regional area experiencing Crisis (IPC Phase 3) outcomes increased substantially, and since then, it has remained above 10 percent due to multiple drought events following the 2015-16 drought. The compound effect of these repetitive droughts, combined with difficult macroeconomic conditions in Zimbabwe, has led to high assistance needs across several parts of the region.
This recent increase in food insecurity in SSA is further substantiated by Figure 1d, which shows an increase in peak estimates of population in need of emergency food assistance (in Crisis or worse phase, according to FEWS NET) across the countries that they cover in all three regions. In EA and SA, the increase has been particularly substantial after the droughts in 2015, 2016, and 2017, more than doubling the 2015 estimates in both regions.
While the factors driving modern food insecurity are complex, they almost always involve an inability to purchase or access food. Unfortunately, African food price indices have been increasing (Fig. 1e), while income share held by Africans countries has remained stagnant (Fig. 1f). Figure 1e shows the FAO food consumer price index (CPI) trends since 2004, plotted in the form of anomalies compared to the past 5 years’ mean CPI values. The world food CPI increased after the last global economic recession, but has been on a downward trend since 2011, whereas the African food CPI has been on a clear upward trend. In contrast, the median trend in percentage of national income earned by households in the bottom four wage quintiles has remained flat (Fig. 1e). In other words, aggregate food price indices increased, while the share of national wealth earned by poor households remained the same. Poor rural households in developing countries generally spend upwards of 60 percent or more of their annual income on food. If the global COVID-19 pandemic leads to further increases in food prices and/or disruptions to household incomes, it is prudent to assume that the current level of food insecurity will increase in SSA.
By now, it is well known that COVID-19 presents a particular health risk to those individuals with certain pre-existing conditions, impacting their immune and respiratory systems. In terms of its impact on AFI, it is expected that the pandemic will indirectly impact some households with “pre-existing” food insecurity, as movement restrictions limit income earning among populations that were already facing difficulty meeting their basic food needs. COVID-19-related economic and agronomic disruptions leading to high prices and reduced incomes may also challenge many nations and households that were not previously food insecure. For example, urban food insecurity could be an emerging and potentially widespread concern. Together, this results in an increase in both the severity and scale of AFI.
Additionally, in 2020 or 2021, an SSA weakened by COVID-19 may need to cope with yet another climate extreme drought in EA during the October-December short rains. In May, expert assessments by the Climate Prediction Center indicated about a 44 percent chance of La Niña development. Current model predictions have reasonable levels of skill in equatorial EA and are currently anticipating below-normal October-December rains. Going from west to east across the tropical Indo-Pacific, the models anticipate anomalously cool-warm-cool conditions in the western Indian Ocean, eastern Indian/western Pacific, and eastern Indian Ocean. If such conditions materialize, this could lead to conditions similar to those prevalent in 2016/17 and drought conditions in parts of the EA region during the 2020 October-December and 2021 March-May rainy seasons, further contributing to food insecurity. Decades of progress and investment have produced well-developed early warning systems that can predict climate extremes in advance; for example, in 2016 and early 2017, effective early warning and associated responses helped EA cope with severe back-to-back droughts, and hence can help predict any future outbreaks of severe levels of AFI due to climate extreme. Effective famine early warning systems and humanitarian assistance programs have contributed to a decline in hunger-related mortality, resulting in “one of the great unacknowledged triumphs of our lifetime.” The next several years will test our shared humanity and the mettle of our early warning systems. We will need to pay close attention to those early warning alerts and respond accordingly.
The authors would like to thank Shannon Wilson, FEWS NET Program Manager, for their careful review and many thoughtful suggestions to this article. We would also like to thank the Climate Hazard Center’s Juliet Way-Henthorne, for providing professional editing.