Warfare, not climate, is driving resurgent hunger in Africa, says study

After years of progress on food security, some nations see sharp reversals

Peer-Reviewed Publication


Spreading Famine

For years, it seemed the world was making progress eliminating hunger. Then, starting in 2014, the trend slid back slowly and reversed in many nations; now, some 700 million people—nearly 9 percent of the world’s population—go to bed hungry, according to the UN.

One of the hardest-hit regions is sub-Saharan Africa. Here, many people reflexively blame droughts stoked by climate change. However, a new study looking at the question in granular detail says that is not the case: long-running wars, not the weather, are to blame. The study, just published in the journal Nature Food, finds that while droughts routinely cause food insecurity in Africa, their contribution to hunger has remained steady or even shrunk in recent years. Instead, rising widespread, long-term violence has displaced people, raised food prices and blocked outside food aid, resulting in the reversal.

“Colloquially, people would say it’s climate-induced droughts and floods, because that’s what people tend to say,” said Weston Anderson, who led the study as a postdoctoral researcher at Columbia University’s International Research Institute for Climate and Society. “But academics have not compared the importance of drought to violence in triggering food crises in a holistic way.”

To reach their conclusions, the researchers analyzed 2009-2018 data from the Famine Early Warning System, a USAID-funded network that provides information to governments and aid organizations about looming or ongoing food crises in dozens of countries. The system shows that the number of people requiring emergency food aid in monitored countries surged from 48 million in 2015 to 113 million in 2020. The system is not designed to quantify the different factors behind the emergencies. But Anderson and his colleagues were able to tease these out for 14 of Africa’s most food-insecure countries. The nations reach in a band from Mauritania, Mali and Nigeria in the west, through Sudan, Chad and other nations, to Ethiopia, Kenya and Somalia in the east. The study also took in several nations further south, including Mozambique and Zimbabwe.

Not surprisingly, the researchers found that periodic, well-documented droughts have been behind food crises across large areas. However, the overall effects of drought did not increase during the study period; of anything, they went down in some areas. When drought did hit, farmers usually bounced back in the next planting season, within a year or so. Animal herders took twice as long to recover, because the areas where they live saw with more extreme conditions, and it took people time to rebuild their hard-hit livestock herds.

Amid the usual ups and downs of rainfall, violence has been responsible for the progressive increase in hunger, the study found. Long-term conflicts ranging from repeated terrorist attacks to pitched combat between armies have caused shortages lasting year after year, with no end in sight, the authors say.

This has been especially the case in northeast Nigeria, where the Boko Haram guerrilla army has waged a relentless hit-and-run campaign against the government and much of the populace for the past decade. Also in South Sudan, where a messy, multi-sided civil war that started in 2013 continues to sputter along. Sudan and Somalia also have seen warfare-induced increases in hunger, but in those nations, droughts have been the more dominant factors, the study found. In most cases, pastoralists are again the most affected by violence as they are with drought, because they are more likely to live in the most violence-prone areas.

The latest casualty is Ethiopia, where hunger has arced upward across the country in recent years, mainly due to below-average rainfall. But civil war erupted in the country’s Tigray region last year, greatly adding to the misery. The study did not examine this new conflict, but a recent UN report said that more than 5 million people in the region urgently need food aid, and many are already seeing out and out famine. “This severe crisis results from the cascading effects of conflict, including population displacement, movement restrictions, limited humanitarian access, loss of harvest and livelihood assets, and dysfunctional or nonexistent markets,” a top UN official said. On top of that, the drought in Ethiopia is projected to continue through this year.

The researchers looked into a third possible cause of hunger: locusts. Again,  not surprisingly, locusts affect food security in some years by damaging forage and crops—but not on a scale large enough to account for the increase in hunger during the study period. (The study did not look at the unusually large waves of locusts that swept much of East Africa in 2019-2020; these may have had more drastic results.)

One further factor the researchers looked at: whether the onset of drought contributed to flareups of violence, and thus more hunger. One of the report’s coauthors, climatologist Richard Seager of Columbia’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, connected the dots in this regard in a widely cited 2015 study arguing that one spark for the ongoing Syrian civil war was a multi-year drought that drove many people off their land, into cities. This does not seem to be the case for the African countries, he said. The authors write, “We found no systematic relation between drought and either frequency of conflict or deaths related to conflict. Conflict may be affected by environmental stress in some cases but the relationship across Africa in recent decades is complex and context-specific.”

While warfare has been the predominant driver of hunger in some countries, that does not mean others have completely escaped the violence that can disrupt food supplies. For instance, over the last decade, much of Mali has been subject to on and off attacks by separatist and Islamist insurgents who at times have taken entire cities. Since 2015, the once largely peaceful nation of Burkina Faso has seen hundreds of attacks by rebels and jihadists, including a raid on a village in early June this year that killed more than 100 people.

“The overall message is that if we’re going to predict and handle food crises, we need to be paying attention to conflicts, which can be really complicated—not just the more easily identified things like drought,” said Anderson. “Droughts have a clear start and a clear end. But there are all kinds of violence. And a lot of the time, there is no clear start or end to it.” That said, warfare is certainly behind surging hunger in other parts of the world that the team did not examine, he said, most obviously amid the civil war raging in Yemen.

The other authors of the study are Elisabeth Ilboudo-Nébie, Wolfram Schlenker, Fabien Cottier, Alex De Sherbinin, Dara Mendeloff and Kelsey Markey, all of Columbia University; and Sonali McDermid and Kelsey Markey of New York University.

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Chris Hanley
August 14, 2021 10:08 pm

Warfare, not climate, is driving resurgent hunger in Africa, says study.

No problem, work is already in hand blaming climate for the warfare.

Reply to  Chris Hanley
August 14, 2021 11:19 pm

Digging that hole wider and deeper, aren’t they?

Reply to  Chaswarnertoo
August 16, 2021 5:51 am

The better to bury the bodies in.

Rory Forbes
August 14, 2021 10:15 pm

I’m amazed that there was ever any doubt about these things. Wars and religious strife have always plagued mankind with famines and disruption of society. Sub Saharan Africa has both, as does the Horn of Africa and most other places suffering want and chaos. It certainly isn’t the climate, which has been steadily and generally improving for two centuries. It isn’t CO2 because, if anything, that has been contributing to excellent crop yields. Human society thrives in warmer periods while climate extremes diminish. This is no secret.

Gary Pearse
Reply to  Rory Forbes
August 15, 2021 7:02 pm

I worked in Nigeria in the mid 1960s when, after a year or more of Hausa – Ibo (Igbo) tribal conflict a full scale civil war broke out. Ultimately, 2-3 million Ibo died of of starvation.

This article is the first I’ve seen that sees starvation in countries under conflict in Africa as the main purveyor of dеатн. Traditional food production and distribution (market places) are easily plundered and burned. Don’t expect a market to be there the next day!

The study from what has been an activist hotbed on climate – Columbia U is a surprise in these neurotic months leading up to another “last chance” to save the world from climate change.

Rory Forbes
Reply to  Gary Pearse
August 15, 2021 7:35 pm

In a typical hand to mouth existence, in the tropics, people don’t have more than one maybe two days of food. In even a small, local war food supply becomes super critical within mere hours. Village A picks up and moves to village B where the head man has family. Now 200 desperate people become 400 or 600 near starving people in a week. After moving to the 3rd of 4th village, water supplies become critical and often contaminated. After two weeks you have a humanitarian crisis that is now moving like locusts, devouring and polluting everything in its path. Once they stop, from sheer exhaustion … Westerners like us say, “how can those people get themselves in such a mess?” And that’s just from a small, local war.

Not having 30 years of climate fraud and wasting billions, could have fixed it. Providing cheap available energy could have fixed it, but the UN is a scam organization bent on world dominance and one world government … not to mention a eugenics philosophy.

Sorry for the length, but you triggered a nerve. Cheers

Patrick MJD
August 14, 2021 10:25 pm

By far the largest perpetrators of slavery, war and hunger in Africa are Africans on Africans.

Reply to  Patrick MJD
August 14, 2021 11:17 pm

And always has been.

Alan the Brit
Reply to  Patrick MJD
August 15, 2021 3:43 am

I seem to recall from my history that many a tribe & tribal leader did very nicely out the the slave trade, organising raids to the interior to attack enemy tribes & the like capturing prisoners to sell to the British, French, et al!!! As is all too forgotten, Britain wasn’t the only European nation to indulge in slavery!!! The Spanish & Portugese did very nicely in the Americas!!!

Reply to  Alan the Brit
August 15, 2021 3:55 am

Yea, the 1619 Project conveniently leaves those facts out of their agitprop.

Reply to  2hotel9
August 15, 2021 6:55 am

1619 Project leaves most facts out of their agitprop.

Reply to  MarkW
August 15, 2021 7:41 am

Several of our local school districts have already removed that and CRT from their curricula. The high school closest to me has an excellent meteorology setup and real science teachers. Left really screwed the pooch by not going after the rural districts first, we are on to their crap and removing it. PennState is rather unhappy about that! 😉

Reply to  Alan the Brit
August 15, 2021 4:05 am

See also HMS Black Joke.

John Dilks
Reply to  Alan the Brit
August 15, 2021 8:03 pm

Don’t forget the Muslims. They were very much into slavery of all races.

August 14, 2021 10:36 pm

We want to help. We want to help bring high efficiency low emission coal fired electricity to these communities. With electricity economist will grow.
https://youtu.be/RQRQ7S92_lo Help us Help You!

Reply to  Sid Abma
August 15, 2021 6:57 am

And there have always been carpetbaggers, seeking to get rich off of other people’s problems.

Phillip Bratby
August 14, 2021 10:45 pm

The population in sub-Saharan Africa is growing exponentially, Food production cannot keep pace with the increase in the number of mouths to feed.

Joao Martins
Reply to  Phillip Bratby
August 15, 2021 1:17 am

Not so simple.

Food production could break that Malthusian spell. But modern agronomic technology is beeing prevented to be utilised in many countries. Especially those that have tighter relations with the European Union: trade and even aid for development programs are being conditioned to accepting (and writing in their laws) the EU gospel of “clean” energy, no “chemicals” (including fertilizers!), etc.

Reply to  Joao Martins
August 15, 2021 2:42 am

“Virtue signalling” must be added to the list of deadly sins.

Reply to  Phillip Bratby
August 15, 2021 3:56 am

Especially when muslim scumbags are destroying crops as fast as they can.

Reply to  Phillip Bratby
August 15, 2021 6:59 am

1) It’s not growing exponentially, in fact the rate of growth has been dropping rapidly.
2) They were able to feed everyone prior to the wars breaking out.
3) Why is it always dark skinned people who have to be controlled?

Reply to  Phillip Bratby
August 15, 2021 9:25 am

Population of Ethiopia
1985 41 million
2021 118 million.

1985 Live Aid concert to raise funds to mitigate famine.

How do you almost triple a population without increasing food production.

Gary Pearse
Reply to  StephenP
August 16, 2021 10:49 pm

Interestingly, Bangladesh, one of the poorest of countries not too long ago, has built a few large clean coal power plants and their annual GDP took off! In the last decade GDP became double digit and presently is over 15% a year.

Moreover, 7 or 8 years ago the fertility rate averaged 6 children per married woman. By 2020 it had declined to just under 2 children per!! The long promoted idea that with economic development you get population under control turns out to be true. Provide cheap fossil fueled power for Ethiopia and their pop will be shrinking in a decade.

Reply to  Phillip Bratby
August 15, 2021 10:11 pm

Nigeria 1960 <50M people
Nigeria 2020 >200M people
A 400% increase in 60 years!
Throughout Africa and South Asia, this pattern is repeated. What’s more, half the population is under 20 and not even begun to breed so you ain’t see nothing yet.
They will ravage their environments, kill all the wildlife, and then will demand entry into what remains of the West. Then repeat as above.

Reply to  Crisp
August 16, 2021 5:54 am

The vast majority of that population growth occurred during the years immediately following 1950. Try researching some actual facts, not just those that agree with what you want to believe.

August 14, 2021 11:18 pm

Too many people, not enough crop land? Just a thought….

Joao Martins
Reply to  Chaswarnertoo
August 15, 2021 1:21 am

No. Please see my comment to Phillip Bratby at August 15, 2021 1:17 am.

They can have economic aid from the EU to build thousands of windmills to produce “green” energy, but they will not get any money to develop a food production program scientificaly based and using appropriate technologies of production.

Reply to  Joao Martins
August 15, 2021 3:59 am

All of which are pointless while muslim scumbags are allowed to destroy crops as fast as they can.

Joao Martins
Reply to  2hotel9
August 15, 2021 6:29 am

Not so simple. Famine due to the recent locust plague across the north of Africa was NOT caused by terrorists, but by ONG, some tentacles of FAO and the EU that all together in a coalition convinced the governments of some countries NOT to use insectides well know to control those swarming plagues. See Kenya, for instance: a big producer of “organic” foodstuffs for the European ruling “green elite”. Sold at high prices, most carried by air transport.

Even muslim scumbags know that they are dependent on the local crops; their objective is not to destroy the crops but to enslave the farmes so that they can pillage them.

Reply to  Joao Martins
August 15, 2021 7:23 am

Actually the muslim scumbags are being supplied directly by USAID and other food relief programs through UN, soon as it hits the ground the cleptocrats and militias grab it. Ain’t the women and old people getting all that free food, if they get any it is after paying UN personnel with whatever they have to sell, mainly their bodies. Kenya is holding stable for now, it is not going to last. I remember Zaire, it was supposed to be the bulwark of modernization, it died in a year thanks to the UN.

Reply to  Chaswarnertoo
August 15, 2021 3:58 am

No, crops are being destroyed by muslim scumbags. Plenty of arable land in that region, even with regular drought patterns.

Reply to  2hotel9
August 15, 2021 6:15 am

Yeah, but it’s either opium or food crops. Can’t have both.

Reply to  Chaswarnertoo
August 15, 2021 7:00 am

That’s true, only so long as you don’t spend any time actually thinking about the facts.

Matthew Sykes
August 14, 2021 11:19 pm

CO2 increases crop yields. If you want to end starvation, put money into the poorest of people pockets, get CO21 up to 1000 ppm.

Zig Zag Wanderer
Reply to  Matthew Sykes
August 15, 2021 12:55 am

get CO21 up to 1000 ppm.

I’d imagine that CO21 would be extremely unstable…

Reply to  Matthew Sykes
August 15, 2021 4:07 am

Even burning all available fossil fuels won’t get it to 1000ppm, sadly. 800 tops.

August 15, 2021 2:54 am

Ethiopia population:

Reply to  Rusty
August 15, 2021 4:00 am

Add to that muslim scumbags destroying crops throughout the region.

Reply to  Rusty
August 15, 2021 7:02 am

It really is amazing how quickly people jump onto the notion that the problem is always too many brown people.
Other countries were able to handle much bigger increases in population without starving.

Peter D
August 15, 2021 3:22 am

Climate change is wonderful. Any problem, anything, is the fault of climate change. That absolves all politicians and beaurocrats of any responsibility.

August 15, 2021 3:52 am

When one of the primary tactics of muslim scumbags is to destroy every acre of crops they can over run after killing the men and kidnapping the boys for soldiers of course the women and old people are going to starve, and the muslim scumbags release hours of video OF those starving women and old people and blame America for their plight. Destroying your enemies crops is as old as humanity itself, as is blaming an uninvolved third party for it. Video is the only thing new in this cycle.

August 15, 2021 5:38 am

Interesting. No mention in the article of the effects of direct “humanitarian” food aid, which destroys the markets, bankrupts local farmers/producers, contributes to local corruption and violence, and generally does more long-term harm than good. This was quite a popular topic several years ago.

Richard Page
Reply to  hiskorr
August 15, 2021 6:01 am

A lot of foreign aid goes directly to the local warlords and their armies, one way or another. Bob Geldof was instrumental, with the Band Aid money, of building up the forces of at least one very grateful local warlord who then invaded several of his rivals territories.

As you point out, most foreign aid does a lot more harm than good.

August 15, 2021 6:24 am

Also, lockdowns. If half of your income is spent on food and it goes up by half, suddenly someone doesn’t have enough to eat.

August 15, 2021 6:51 am

What the heck, I thought peak oil was driving hunger?

M Courtney
August 15, 2021 7:03 am

For further evidence, see the historical case study of Biafra.

Reply to  M Courtney
August 15, 2021 10:23 am

My dad went to Biafra to examine relief needs for the British Society of Friends. He got into trouble because neither side would recognize neutrality. After an asassination attempt, he left promptly.

He was in China with the Friends Ambulance Unit during and after WWII. One thing that can be said of the Chinese was that they were free to travel across the lines of the retreating Quomintang and the advancing Maoists to carry out civilian relief.

Genuine civilian relief is really not possible unless the culture can accept the concept of neutrality.

Stephen Skinner
August 15, 2021 8:11 am

“Warfare, not climate, is driving resurgent hunger in Africa, says study”No s**t Shirlock. And this conclusion is from the brightest and best?

Michael in Dublin
August 15, 2021 5:04 pm

Anyone who has lived in different African countries can tell you it is too simplistic to blame warfare, whether civil/tribal conflict or between countries. The role these play varies from country to country but factors like corruption, greed, incompetence, mismanagement and more all contribute. Africa has a people not climate problem. If they were to make proper use of their huge natural resources and adapt to the swings between floods and droughts with storage methods and pumping of water people could flourish.

Andre Thomas Lewis
August 15, 2021 6:23 pm

An important factor in sub Saharan African is a rapidly increasing population so food production and even overseas food aid cannot meet the substantial new demands.

August 15, 2021 9:13 pm

“If you give a man a fish, you feed him for a day. If you teach a man to fish, you feed him for a lifetime”
Does not work when that man has 10 extra kids to feed every generation

Reply to  george1st:)
August 16, 2021 5:57 am

Hasn’t been true for generations, but what the heck, we have stereotypes to maintain.

Michael in Dublin
Reply to  george1st:)
August 18, 2021 9:16 am

It also does not work where the fish stock is completely eliminated by over fishing.

August 16, 2021 7:56 am

In other words, reality does not match promotion and tenure-oriented models.

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