Sun, sea and starvation

Lucinda Borkett-Jones travels to Malawi to find out how the world is going hungry while the planet heats up.

In our plastic-wrapped society, the relationship between people and the land is largely absent from daily life. Most of our bread comes ready-sliced courtesy of Hovis, not grown, threshed, milled and baked in our own backyard. It is difficult to fully grasp the link between ‘caring for the planet’ and how not doing so might affect our lifestyle. It’s all too easy to cling film our consciences and get on with life.

In other parts of the world, people’s lives and livelihoods are directly dependent on the land; whether the rain comes or not and whether the crops grow determines whether there’s food on the table for the rest of the year. Climate change has affected weather patterns globally, making rain erratic and seriously jeopardising food security. When we talk about climate change, we aren’t referring to the irreversible course of nature burning itself up in an inevitable apocalypse. Most experts now agree that it’s a man-made problem, with political responsibilities.

These responsibilities are mounting as factors such as population growth place an increasing strain on global food security. In the UK, we might notice the price of bread going up, but it’s still on the shelves. For the time being at least, the real effects of food insecurity are felt most by the poor.

It’s all too easy to cling film our consciences and get on with life

So we know that change in the earth’s temperature is making people go hungry, but is there anything we can do about it? The charity sector certainly thinks so. The IF campaign wants to get across the message loud and clear that there’s ‘enough food for everyone, IF…’ The coalition of more than 150 NGOs is lobbying the governments of the G8 nations as they gather in Britain in June this year. There are four policy areas which the campaign addresses: aid, land, tax and transparency. The coalition is asking the UK government to maintain its foreign aid commitments and fight to prevent farmers in the developing world being forced off their land. The government is also being asked to take steps to tackle tax evasion by multinationals, and improve transparency in the food production system. Politicians will continue to debate who’s responsible for coughing up the funds to pay for the consequences of climate change; meanwhile, almost a billion people go to bed hungry every night.

No Insurance

So, how is the climate changing? The British like to think they’re pretty weather-savvy. It’s our failsafe subject for small talk, but even so, I’m not sure you’d be able to remember the exact date of our most recent bout of heavy rain – or at least not without a bit of help from the BBC. Elsewhere it’s a different story. In remote villages in Malawi, for example, people know exactly when the rain comes and goes because their lives depend on it.

The road winding down into the town of Chikwawa in southern Malawi is surrounded by rich green foliage. The tarmacked highway gives way to a rugged dirt track leading to clusters of small brick houses. The valley is hot and dry; the river is dry in March, and goats roam looking for grass in the dusty earth. The rains were good this year, but the farmers still only harvested enough food to provide for their families for a few months.

That was the best rainy season they’d had in the past five years. The older generation remembers a time when it wasn’t like this, when the rain started on almost the same day every year; they could plan when to plant, and when they would harvest. Erratic rainfall now means they can’t rely on the amount of crops they will grow.

Those of us in richer countries can insure ourselves against [food insecurity],’ says Dave Bookless, theology advisor for A Rocha International. ‘We can get things from elsewhere; we have refrigerators and can afford to pay the transport costs. But in poor countries their fields are their supermarkets and the rivers are their water supplies – it only takes a small change to be devastating when you live close to the edge anyway.’

It’s not just droughts that cause hunger but floods as well, both the result of global warming, which is caused by the carbon dioxide emissions from coal, oil and gas. So far, the increase in temperature has been about three-quarters of a degree, but it’s enough to make a difference.

International agreements aim to prevent an increase in temperature of more than 2°C, but some anticipate it could rise by as much as 4°C by 2100. As the oceans get warmer, there’s more evaporation and so there’s more water vapour in the atmosphere, which means average rainfall will also increase.

‘For the most part, the wet areas will get wetter and the dry areas will get drier,’ says Kevin Henry, coordinator of the Where the Rain Falls research project for CARE International and the United Nations University. ‘But what we are also seeing [is] it’s not so much about the change in the average precipitation – that may not change so dramatically – but we’re already seeing major changes in the patterns of that rainfall. You may get the same amount of rain, but if you get the bulk of that in a few intense events the benefit for agriculture is limited, and it can have a devastating effect.’

Most scientists agree with this view. ‘Very simply you’re going to get more extremes of weather, which we are [already] seeing around the world,’ says Sir John Houghton, former co-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and chair of the John Ray Initiative. ‘Floods and droughts are the biggest disasters the world knows, because they cause… more misery, more deaths, more economic loss.’

Impact on the poor

The impact of these disasters is felt most by the poor, who are least equipped to manage them and adapt their agricultural industries to the effects of climate change. ‘The poor always live in the more vulnerable areas, because they can’t afford to live anywhere else,’ says Bookless. ‘So in Bangladesh, for example, [they live] in the low-lying areas, and they will always be hit first. At every level, poor people feel the effects before those of us who are more comfortably off.’

In poor countries their fields are their supermarkets and the rivers are their water supplies

The farmers I met in Malawi dream of being able to live on the crops they grow for the entire year, as they would have done in the past. Changing the way they farm is one way this might be achieved. A number of development agencies, including Tearfund, are training communities like the ones I visited to adapt to the environment. Farmers are taught methods to make their crops more resilient, and are encouraged to diversify both their crops and their income. I met an amazing group of women who had started a savings and loans group, which enabled them to run small businesses for half of the year when they weren’t farming. Additionally, some were using conservation agriculture techniques; a method of farming that pays more attention to caring for the land for the benefit of the people. By sheltering crops at an early stage, farmers can protect seedlings from being washed away by heavy rain and conserve moisture in the soil during dry periods. It all takes education, time and investment. But if they don’t take these sorts of measures, they risk an even greater cost.

What does hunger feel like?

It’s hard to imagine what it’s like to have to eke out your food supplies. Standing in the shade of towering sorghum stalks, one farmer, Lucy Amos (bottom left), told me that her field would only provide enough to feed her family for a few months. After that she and her children will have to find work to buy food. Casual labour is in high demand in villages where they are all affected by the same weather.

The ultimate joy for farmers is to see their crops flourish and their hard work come to fruition. The opposite is true when there isn’t enough rain and crops fail, or there’s too much rain and the crops are washed away before they’ve had a chance to mature. Even more worrying is that the same thing may affect wide areas, leading to food shortages and rising prices.

One way of coping with the drought is to grow different crops. Though helpful, this change comes with a sense of loss; Charity Juwawo (middle left) said: ‘My children don’t know maize as I know it. Because for them to have maize I have to go and buy it from the market, so we have to eat sorghum. Always when there is a new thing, it’s [difficult] to process the change.’ You might say that beggars can’t be choosers. But just imagine if someone told you that you couldn’t ever eat bread or potatoes again. It wouldn’t be by choice, or part of some fad diet outlawing carbs, but a necessity, and a difficult one to stomach.

I asked Rose Lamack what she tells her children when there isn’t enough food. She said: ‘When there is hunger I just comfort them, and say, “Don’t worry; this year there is hunger, so eat what is available.”’ The fear is that a year of hunger could become many years of hunger.

Hunger does awful things to a community. When food is scarce, crime in the villages increases – people steal from one another in desperation. Women are forced to enter prostitution as a means of earning money to buy food. Relationships are damaged, trust is undermined. One Malawian villager said: ‘What these groups are doing as a coping mechanism doesn’t benefit the whole community; they are actually destroying the community.’

A growing challenge

Food security is a growing problem, and it will get worse unless we do something about it. ‘If you think of the big challenges our society faces – one of them is that we have 7 billion people in the world today; of those, the best part of a billion are already undernourished,’ says Henry. ‘At the same time, we have a similar amount who are obese. By 2050 we’re going to have roughly 9 billion people in the world. Experts tell us that in order to feed 9 billion we’d have to increase agricultural production between 70 to 100% between now and 2050, yet we will have to do that in the face of climate change.’

As with most aspects of international development, climate change can’t be put in a box and dealt with in isolation from other concerns. Population growth is one reason why some argue for a more joined-up approach to climate change.

Vincent Moyo, Tearfund’s country representative in Malawi, says: ‘Where we were yesterday is still inadequate for our population size today. As development facilitators we may not want to deal with climate change issues in isolation from reproductive health. Previously that was linked to HIV/Aids response or health-related initiatives, but now the reality is reproductive health needs to be linked to almost every intervention. The fight for resources is not just for one sector.’

Structural change

Whether they meet under a tree or in a hut, local churches in these areas have an important role to play in making communities more resilient and helping people diversify their sources of income. ‘Everywhere where you have a church, [it] is [the] first place that people run to when they are faced with a challenge; be it food shortage, floods [or] outbreak of diseases resulting from the changing of the climate,’ says Moyo. Consequently, the Church provides an effective link with remote, neglected communities and a means of sharing information and training on climate change adaptation.

The IF campaign has complex aims because it’s trying to address structural problems rather than raise funds for a specific project. Instead of making a series of new demands, part of the campaign is encouraging the G8 to fulfil commitments that it has already made – particularly where climate finance is concerned. Climate change isn’t the only cause of hunger, but it is one where preventative measures can be taken to empower people, rather than merely offering relief when disasters have already happened.

In 2010, international leaders pledged to spend $100bn (£62.3bn) per year on climate change adaptation and mitigation from 2020, which is the minimum cost estimated for developing countries to adapt to climate change. There is not, as yet, a clear indication of where this money will come from. The UK’s climate finance commitments end in 2015, and much of the money committed to climate adaptation measures currently comes from the aid budget, which is already under pressure. Part of the IF campaign’s emphasis on finance is to get the G8 to think creatively about where the additional money needed could come from, such as raising it from the industrial sector rather than demanding more from struggling public finances.

By 2014, the farmers in Malawi hope to be able to harvest enough crops to make it through the year without going hungry, thanks to the new methods they’ve learnt. But there are many Malawis out there – countries with small-scale agricultural sectors, vulnerable to the increasingly unpredictable rains, which can bring both blessing and disaster in equal measure. What will we have achieved by 2014? Will our government have committed to supporting necessary changes in tax and transparency, and be finding the finances to put their money where their mouth is?

IF

Will it work?

The last time Britain hosted the G8, white bracelets saying ‘Make Poverty History’ were seen in abundance. This time, the pin-badge is making a comeback with the IF campaign’s arrow already spotted on celebrity jacket lapels. But what’s different about this campaign – can we end hunger in a way that we haven’t yet made poverty history?

By focusing on ‘hunger’ as a single aspect of poverty, the campaign is in some ways more specific than Make Poverty History. But the four areas the campaign addresses – aid, tax, land and transparency – all involve enormous political debates. Campaigns like these have a role to play in demonstrating the public will behind issues which keep them on the political agenda. It’s also important to think about what we need to be doing here to prevent the escalating effects of climate change elsewhere.

We won’t see an end to hunger in 2013, but it’s certainly worth asking the question why, when there is – and always has been – enough food produced on the earth to feed everyone, people still go hungry. If that means we have to keep asking the question until we do have an answer, so be it.

There will be an ecumenical service in London on 8th June coinciding with the Prime Minister’s Hunger Summit, followed by a large event in Hyde Park. There will also be a meeting in Belfast on 15th June, just before the G8 meets outside the city. For more details, log on to: enoughfoodif.org



« Back to the last issue

comments powered by Disqus
You may also like...

The world has rightly turned its attention to China and the Coronavirus... More

Cyclone Idai, one of the most intense tropical cyclones to hit... More

The UN has announced that more than five million people - about... More

As bushfires ravished the Australian landscape, destroying property... More