After a decade of declining numbers of hungry people, the world is now witnessing a reversal of this positive trend. Consistent for the last three years, the reversal has led to an increase in the absolute number of people affected by undernourishment or chronic food deprivation globally. In 2017, the number of hungry people rose to 821 million, from around 804 million in 2016, almost the same as the number in 2010. This is despite a reduction recorded within the same period.
While the prevalence of undernourished people in Southeast Asia is more or less stable at 9.8 percent, the prevalence of a severely food insecure population based on the Food Insecurity Experience Scale (FIES) has increased. Between 2014 to 2017, the prevalence of a severely food insecure population increased from 7.3 percent or 46 million people to 10.1 percent or 65.8 million people. Undernourishment is defined as long-term consumption of insufficient dietary energy required to maintain a normal, active, healthy life, while people who are severely food insecure are defined as those experiencing entire days without eating due to a lack of money or other resources.
According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in its flagship ‘The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2018’ report released this week, while the situation in Southeast Asia is less worrying compared to other regions, a closer look at the subregion reveals that the increase in the number of hungry people in Southeast Asia is mostly due to the adverse effects of climate conditions on food availability and prices. This is opposed to the increase in the number of hungry people in West Asia, which is caused by prolonged armed conflicts.
“Changes in climate are already undermining the production of major crops (wheat, rice and maize) in tropical and temperate regions and, without adaptation, this is expected to worsen as temperatures increase and become more extreme. Climate-related disasters have come to dominate the risk landscape to the point where they now account for more than 80 percent of all major internationally reported disasters.
“The changing nature of climate variability and extremes is negatively affecting all dimensions of food security (food availability, access, utilization and stability), as well as reinforcing other underlying causes of malnutrition related to child care and feeding, health services and environmental health,” stated the report.
Climate change in the here and now
While it is always misguidedly framed as a future risk, the impacts of climate change can already be observed and felt. According to the FAO, mounting evidence is pointing to the fact that climate change is already affecting agriculture and food security.
In Vietnam’s Mekong Delta, rice output and cropping cycles have been affected by the variations in timing and extent of flooding during the wet season, salinity intrusion in the dry season, and below-normal seasonal rainfall. The shifting weather pattern in turn impacts households’ decision making, including deciding on the type of crops they choose to grow, as well as when they plant and harvest.
There is also evidence that the elderly, widows, disabled, single mothers, and households headed by women with small children were least resilient to floods and storms, as well as slow-onset events such as recurrent droughts. Increase in gender-based violence within households due to stress, loss and grief, and disrupted safety nets has been observed as indirect social consequence attributed to climate-related disasters and slow-onset climate events in the country.
In the Philippines, extreme climate events have led to recurring climate-related disasters, costing the nation’s agricultural sector billions of dollars. Between 2006 and 2013, the Philippines experienced 75 natural disasters, mostly typhoons, tropical storms and floods that cost US$3.8 billion in damages and losses. This is equal to an average of US$477 million each year that carves out a significant portion of the agricultural budget, with significant negative effects on households that depend on farming for their livelihood.
Climate variability and extremes are key drivers of global hunger and severe food crises. For developing nations in the region, its impact can have long-lasting and defining effects on the population. This includes erasing gains that have been achieved in eradicating hunger and poverty, as well as those in human and economic development. Facing up to the challenges, there is urgent need for regional governments to increase their efforts in building resilience and adaptive capacity. The climate is changing and it is not going to get better any time soon.