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Prevent and prepare for disasters to end hunger


By Marco Cavalcante:


Justina is happy. Her family this year yielded an abundant amount of maize. She considers herself blessed to have received the right amount of rain this year without causing floods as was the case in other parts of Malawi.

While prices of goods and services are on the rise, she is optimistic about the year to come. Her children will go to school and they will have enough resources to plant, hoping that the weather will be good again.

Last week, many newspapers reported on food insecurity in Malawi and the whole region according to the newly issued report on the State of Food and Nutrition Security and Vulnerability in Southern Africa. While Southern Africa is relatively peaceful and has experienced a positive economic growth, the region still faces increasing food and nutrition insecurity.

In fact, in 2019, an estimated 41.2 million people in 13-member countries of Southern Africa Development Community (Sadc) are facing food insecurity. This is about 28 percent higher than last year, and even higher than 2016/17 when the region experienced the serious El Niño induced drought.

The root of the problem

The main causes seem threefold: conflict (albeit geographically limited), poverty and climate change. Let us just focus on climate change for now. Climate change is a complex issue. According to mainstream science, erratic climatic patterns are mostly caused by human behaviors. We are burning too much fossil fuels and cutting down of trees.

These issues, added to other human activities, have increased the concentrations of greenhouse gases at an unnatural speed causing overall warm conditions. These warm conditions have caused more evaporation and precipitation, but also unpredictable weather patterns with rains being too much, too little, too soon or too late.

While the biggest contributors to this climate change trend are mostly the rich, those who pay the highest price are the poor. Although erratic climatic patterns are registered a bit everywhere in the world, a bigger proportion of the poor, 70 percent of Southern African population who depend on agriculture, with lack of solid social protection systems, and poor preventive mechanisms, are the ones facing the brunt and will continue to suffer more the impact of these climatic phenomena.

Poverty has a direct bearing on nutrition. Due to budget constraints, when in front of difficult choices such as purchase caloric food versus nutritious food, poor households opt for the former.

When livelihoods depend so much on physical labour, caloric food with high energy properties is not an option. So, most of the diets are limited to, or widely composed by, cereals. Children eating a diet poor of macro and micro nutrients will easily fall into the malnutrition trap.

Stunting prevalence is directly linked to diet diversification. Lack of protein and micronutrient is the key cause of stunting, the chronic manifestation of undernutrition. Stunting levels in the Southern Africa region are very vivid, with 10 out of 16 Sadc member States registering rates above 30 percent.

One thing that people are not always aware of is that stunting is incurable, it can only be prevented. A stunted child will not perform in school, will be an adult much more prone to disease, with additional burdens on the national health systems, and will mostly likely fall into the poverty trap as they will be unable to find suitable livelihood opportunities.

Malawi within the regional context

The number of food insecure people, as of July, is estimated at about 676,000. This number is forecasted to rise up to 1.06 million between October 2019 and March 2020, the so-called lean season.

In any case, thanks to the good harvest output, this is a major decline from the 3.3 million registered last year, not to mention the 6.7 million recorded in 2016/17. In addition, the Malawi Smart Survey, issued last July, shows that the prevalence of Global Acute Malnutrition (an indicator of acute undernutrition that shows the percentage of children that are too slim for their height) was found to be very low, at 0.5 percent. All this is despite the impact of the destructive floods in March 2019.

But not everything is good. There still are those 1.06 million food insecure people that will need support during the lean season. And while acute undernutrition is declining and very low, the chronic undernutrition (stunting) is still at 37.4 percent.

Justina is happy as we said at the beginning. She is happy today. But will she remain happy next year and the year after? How can we make sure that no women and children suffer from malnutrition, being it acute or ch

We don’t know when the next drought or flood will hit, but we know for sure that it will. A single country cannot reverse the trend of climate change. But many countries have defeated poverty, and, many have learned how to better cope with climate change.

A way out

Countries can talk about climate change impact at international forums to sensitise others and shape public opinion about it. The just-ended United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) was a great forum for this.

When disaster strikes, people should receive timely and sufficient support. A serious amount of resources should be invested in national integrated programmes that can minimise the impact of climate change, by building resilience to the shocks.

Besides, a solid social protection system should be in place to protect those in need, with predictable monthly or seasonal transfers. These systems should be flexible enough to allow expansions during crisis times.

Finally, all these efforts should aim at supporting a gender transformation agenda and should be in line with the principles agreed in the Paris Declaration on Aid Effectiveness, with monitoring, transparency and accountability mechanisms in place.

Malawi has many policy frameworks that include all these actions. Unfortunately, there are many competing priorities and scarcity of financial resources.

However, with a 4 percent GDP growth in 2018 and an expected positive growth during this year (estimated at 5 percent and 6 percent for 2020), more resources could be made available, including some with the support of donors.

We should move away from responsive mode and embrace at full speed a more efficient and effective way to tackle hunger: through prevention and resilience building, with investments in human and physical capital, more economic growth will come and with it more opportunities to minimise the impact of climate change and reduce poverty.

Now we have two choices in front of us: wait for the next disaster, the next lean season or act now. We can continue saving lives or we can start changing lives. We know how to do either. It is up to us to choose one, imagining what Justina would choose.

*Marco Cavalcante is Deputy Country Director of the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) in Malawi. The views expressed in this article are not necessarily attributable to WFP.

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