Climate Change Was Already Causing Hunger to Spike. Then Russia Invaded Ukraine.

The conflict in Ukraine is causing food shortages around the world. Climate change was already causing widespread food insecurity long before Russia invaded Ukraine. The number of people in crisis or facing famine globally is increasing faster than any time in the 21st Century. Gernot Laganda, director of the Climate and Disaster Risk Reduction Service at the World Food Program, explains how it’s all connected in this episode of “Climate Front Lines.”

Music by Dan Mason.


Note: This is a rushed transcript. It has been lightly edited for clarity. Copy may not be final.

Welcome back to “Climate Front Lines,” the podcast about the people, places and ecosystems on the front lines of the climate crisis. I’m your host, Mike Ludwig, and I’ve been reporting on the war in Ukraine since Russia’s brutal invasion in February. I am horrified at the war and the war in Yemen. For years, Yemen has been another destination for weapons manufactured by private military contractors in America.

But it’s difficult to look away from Ukraine, especially after speaking to Ukrainians living through this war. And the conflict is sending shockwaves across the world as prices rise and vital exports of grain, wheat and other staples are blocked from leaving Ukraine’s ports, a problem Ukraine and Russia blame other for as international negotiators push to reopen shipping lanes in the Black Sea.

Last year, 400 million people in the world were fed Ukrainian grain. If the war continues unabated the number of people suffering from acute hunger worldwide will rise by 47 millions. according to the United Nation’s World Food Program, which relies on Ukrainian grain to feed people around the world. Climate change adds to the threat to global food supply, causing famines, droughts and unpredictable weather. The World Food Program is the world’s largest humanitarian aid organization, so I reached out to the group’s top climate expert in Munich, Germany to find out more.

Gernot Lagonda: My name is Gernot Lagonda. I’m leading the climate and disaster risk reduction programs at the United Nations World Food Program. We can see the problems of climate change through the prisms of hunger when we look at them.

Unfortunately, we live in an age when the number of people in crisis or in emergency is growing faster than ever in the 21st century.

In 2021, 193,000,000 people in 53 countries or territories will have experienced acute food insecurity. These figures are 40 millions more than in 2020. These trends are being driven by a toxic mix of conflict and climate change. People who were once considered to be in the middle of society two years ago are now dependent upon external humanitarian assistance.

Also, if you look at the extreme end of the vulnerability spectrum, where people are living in feminine-like conditions we have more than half of a million people at risk of starvation. You might think that famines are a thing of the past because, you know. We, as a global community, have never been so wealthy.

Um, we have spent huge amounts after COVID and military spending. We also see more people dying from hunger. That is a very difficult perspective to change. But, as you know, the World Food Program provides humanitarian assistance to more than 120 million people each year. Many people are trapped in these conditions, um, in the perfect storm between economic disruptions, climate conflict, and economic disruptions.

We also try to increase resilience so that the next shock doesn’t hit as hard. People have a few assets and strategies that they can rely on to avoid becoming dependent on humanitarian aid, but this is not the whole picture.

Mike Ludwig: Thanks. You also mentioned that people we might consider middle-class are now facing hunger. Is there a place like this? Also, what happens to a food supply or economy that causes people who are stable to now face a shortage of food?

There are certain areas in the world where climate has been a persistent driver of, and of problems for people. This is particularly true for people who depend on climate sensitive resources like agriculture for their livelihoods. As the hell belt, the Horn of Africa. So as a, as a humanitarian agency, we are, we’re quite alert and aware about these flashpoints.

Then again, if you look at Central America (e.g., Guatemala, Honduras or Nicaragua), you can see how a combination of factors has led to the most severe Atlantic hurricane season in recorded history. It hit families already weakened by years of poor rainfall and economic recessions following COVID-19. This means that you will have more frequent and stronger climate extremes that are more vulnerable. This creates new food deserts around the world. There is also the possibility of internal displacement. People losing their capital or moving because they have no other options.

The humanitarian space is also plagued by conflict in many other countries. South Sudan, Nigeria and Afghanistan are just a few examples. Access is essential to humanitarian aid. You also need to protect civilians. However, climate-related issues can often erupt or slow down humanitarian aid.

You can experience heat waves, where suddenly, you realize, you are unable to go outside, because it is 50 degrees. [Celsius]. The heat waves in Pakistan and India are affecting not only the crop year but also the harvest. They are also affecting the labor force and essentially agricultural workers cannot leave. Heat stress is present in, in, and in people, as well as in crops and livestock.

Because all the ventilation from the air conditioner is on, there is a drain on the energy system. This is why you also have the risk of climate extremes affecting humanitarian and development progress.

What does aid look like? Do you have any stories or information about your experience in helping to deliver aid in a country? I’m referring to the 120 million people that the program provides in total. What does that look? In the United States, we might think, oh, that’s sacks of flour being dropped from an airplane or something, but I imagine that there’s actually a bit more complicated process to actually helping people access food.

Yeah. We provide humanitarian aid after emergencies to people who are potentially in life-threatening situations. This can be in the form of distributing food to areas where there are no markets or where markets are closed.

If you find yourself in a conflict zone or civil war, you will need food to feed the front lines. Sometimes, air drops are also necessary. Sometimes, however, certain regions are cut off by flooding events. We have conducted air drops in South Sudan, for example. Food distribution is done through a complex logistical chain. We have also moved to cash transfers in some places, especially those where markets are easily accessible. This has the advantage that cash transfers can stimulate the local economy and help to bring the economy back on track. It also allows people to choose what they spend their cash on and what food they buy. Cash transfers make up a large part of what we offer, especially in areas where markets are recovering or active.

There is another aspect to this, which is the type and amount of transfers we provide. Cash transfers are a very important element also in displacement settings, because often when people get displaced and they move, they move into, into new spaces, there is potential for social tensions or conflict with the host population, because people think, okay, um, they’re drawing on, on our local resources, and it’s, it’s a more of a conflictual situation. Cash transfers can be used to reduce conflict by providing cash to displaced communities.

This makes perfect sense.

Yeah. This is the humanitarian aspect of our work. This basically means that we provide food and cash to people who are unable to access it economically or physically. You know that providing food or cash after an event has occurred is not the best option. Instead, projects and initiatives that build resilience and equip people with the knowledge, information, and seeds to ensure that they can sustain themselves in times of drought or seasonal dry spells. Although they don’t rely upon external aid, a large portion of our programs are in this area.

I believe that market collapse is what happens when these markets are down. Are you familiar with food market collapses? Are these usually due to climate and conflict? As in the case of the war in Ukraine. Can markets just collapse due to a heat wave that paralyzes certain parts of a country?

I guess I’m being broadly general here. I’m curious about what that looks like when all of a sudden you just can’t go to a market, for instance, and buy food.

Yeah. So, there’s different markets, right? There’s a global market and there are regional ones, national ones, and then local markets. Market breakdowns can be seen, you know, very locally. If a particular area in a country has been affected by flooding or drought, or if there are repeated droughts, such as in Madagascar, then the food markets will have almost collapsed. The local ones. The local ones. They don’t have any livestock left to sell. They sold all their equipment and assets. They don’t have any cash. They have nothing in storage. They have no grain in storage. All the grain has been eaten. They are now in, in a position where they need external.

You can have a localized breakdown of the market, but when there is conflict, such as in Yemen or Syria you have an entire economic collapse. There are also opportunities for some regions in a country to have local markets. But, you need to work with the principle self-sufficiency and not selling surplus to the market. All the access roads are closed down, so you cannot get diesel to drive your pumps or fertilizer. However, you can still produce locally for your family. So that, that may well be possible in, in certain, um, in certain places, Afghanistan, for example, is, is a, is a country where you have, uh, these local markets even at a global, uh, sorry at the national, uh, level, uh, the food insecurity is very high now because it’s also rain fed agriculture, extremely drought prone, extremely prone to being hit by these, these climate extremes. And of course, in Afghanistan as we all know, it’s not only a, uh, you know, climate problem, you have the political, problem there as well. There are high levels of poverty, conflict, and social tensions. So, it’s usually when people go hungry, when markets break down, usually it’s a combination of things, but again, it’s context specific depends on the depends on the country we’re talking about.

Your description of Afghanistan struck me mainly because it was the last time that the United States had withdrawn from combat operations. Many of the people I spoke to were more middle-class, or had been employed in some way closer to the U.S. government, NATO or the former government of Afghanistan. They were desperate to leave, regardless of whether they had any connection to the United States. They wanted to leave as soon the U.S. left, because it took a lot wealth that it had been putting into the economy.

What have you experienced with Afghanistan, particularly with the heat waves and the U.S. departure? How dire is the current situation?

This is not only due to the political situation or the human rights situation but also because of water stress in mainly rain-fed agriculture. When you look at how Afghanistan’s average temperature has increased, I mean, globally, we have increased by about 1.1 degree centigrade since pre-industrial times, you know, global average surface temperature in Afghanistan, this is more than that. You know, we are talking about 0.8 degrees centigrade, so it’s, it’s really higher than the global average, and rainfall events have become more extreme and unpredictable. There is a pattern where rainfall that might have fallen over several months or even weeks is now falling in a matter of hours, washing away all that you have planted.

You have high levels of erosion, and as a consequence, you know. You also know that drought conditions, like the one you experienced last year, can lead to high levels of erosion. We had 25 of 34 provinces in drought conditions. So around half of Afghanistan’s population right now are in a food crisis or emergency. This is not just a conflict narrative.

Um, and yeah, we, when we look at these situations, I think we always look at these different drivers of risk for people, you know, climate extremes being one, but then of course there is conflict drivers, and then there is economic drivers and economic drivers have been especially prominent after COVID-19, when you had basically market blockages and inflation, but also now in the wake of Russia’s invasion in Ukraine, where now food prices are going up all over the globe.

This is what these poor communities, whether they are in Afghanistan or Sub-Saharan Africa or the Horn of Africa, feel. They see food price inflation of about 20% for staple crops. The toxic mixture of risk that people face when fertilizer prices rise is evident when you look at the business side.

Right. I know. I imagine that when there is a toxic mix or a shock to global economic markets or the economic system, it will be the most vulnerable people in countries such as Afghanistan and Yemen who are affected first and foremost by a shortage of food. It works in this way: things might be okay, but if you are in a vulnerable location, one shock or pandemic, or one war, 1,000 miles away, it will strike the most vulnerable first. Is this what you have seen?

Yes, that’s correct. You are correct. The climate crisis’ frontlines are not places that are wealthy. If you look at the projections, you will see that hotspots like Somalia, South Sudan, Afghanistan, Somalia are already very fragile. This is because people are becoming more dependent on humanitarian assistance.

This is where our operations must support more people. In a warming climate, this number will only rise. I mean, we, we did some modeling a while back that if global temperatures keep rising to 2 degrees centigrade, and this is keep in mind, we’re already at 1.1 above pre-industrial average, we would have at least an additional 189 million people in food crisis or, or worse.

The World Bank has predicted that climate shocks and stress alone could cause 216 million people to be forced from their homes. It is seven times more than what we have today. The heat can be turned up to four degrees to increase the number hungry people by as much as 1.8 million people. This is why neither the international aid system nor governments are prepared to face such a future. Um, and you know, so, so for us, there’s of course this very important advocacy element here to make sure that, um, these climate, uh, negotiations deliver on ambition.

We can’t go to a future above 2 degrees because then we all will be at breaking point in international aid architecture. You will also see mass displacement and mass starvation. You will immediately experience destabilization on a scale we have not yet experienced.

So, we’re really bracing for impact. We still have time to frame smart, intelligent and strong programs that can be scalable now. But then we really calculate that we will have exceeded the 1.5 degree warming target set by the international climate negotiations in the early thirties. So, um, I’m is running out very, very fast.

It is almost too late. I want to zero in really quickly on Yemen and Ukraine, because those are two conflicts that we’re talking a lot about in the United States, because our government has been involved in those conflicts. There has been a ceasefire in Yemen. Um, I’m not sure if it’s still holding. It has been hailed as a moment when humanitarian aid was able to reach the country more easily than during times of fighting. Do you have any news on Yemen and the humanitarian aid work being done in this area?

I would probably forward your message to our Yemeni country office. Again, you know, I’m the focal point for climate and disasters, production protection of civilians in, uh, basically conflict affected countries when it comes to our logistical supply chain. That being said, I believe other people are better equipped to answer this question.

Yes, absolutely. Quickly, regarding climate and supply chain, can you explain or help us understand how the blockade of Russia stealing wheat from Ukraine, how that ripples out onto the markets, and how that affects people? What does that actually look?

I mean, it’s just, it just comes down to — there was food coming to a port in another country. Now it’s just not coming. That changes everything in the local area.

You can see that the Russian invasion of Ukraine had a significant impact on global food markets. This has nothing to do with climate. It’s not climate element here. It’s basically scarcity on the market. The two countries of Russia and Ukraine are very important for global wheat production.

They are really important for sunflower oil production for a number of staple crops that are, that not only are important for food importing countries, but they’re also important for the humanitarian system because we buy these foodstuffs and then we use them for our humanitarian operations in, for example, Syria or Yemen.

In other words, inflation directly affects how many people we can feed when food prices rise. So we had, uh, um, the latest number I’ve seen is that we have a monthly, additional costs of around $29 million. Just to feed the same people, just due to inflation.

The inflation effect on energy prices and the impact on food prices are both important aspects of the overall picture. Because distribution of food requires more than just buying the food. Transporting food is also necessary. Um, and basically every so sort, that’s the first factor here that I think is important is the prices increase because there is not as much product on the market.

Then you have the blockages in the, of the supply lines. If you can’t ship your grain out of Odessa, why? Then you will have to travel all the way to get him. This is a much more expensive option. You pay more to fill a truck when energy prices are high.

I mean, it’s the overall prices of the, of the food commodities that we need, we need in our programs. The logistics, uh?, are becoming more complex because certain routes that we use, that were previously very efficient, are now not available. We have to find other methods and ways to get our trucks, uh to where people are.