More than 800 million people — 11 percent of the world’s population — are hungry. When food is sufficiently available, safe, nutritious and accessible to all – and only when these conditions remain stable over time – one can speak of a state of food security. However, environmental factors such as pollution, land degradation and extreme weather events have been causing a rise in hunger in many countries throughout the world - from the Sahel to Southeast Asia. Added to common disruptors such as conflicts, climate impacts are becoming a major contributor to food insecurity, as they further constrain access to natural resources and make harvest unpredictable or even impossible. Often, competition over shrinking resources results in or intensifies violent conflicts and forced displacement, thereby impairing livelihood systems and leading to widespread hunger.
What exactly triggers food riots? At which point does climate change come in? And what can we learn from analyzing the lack and impotence of government action in conflict areas?
In our Editor’s Pick, we share 10 case studies from the interactive ECC Factbook that address the connections between food, the environment and conflict. They show how agriculture and rural livelihoods can affect stability in a country, which parties are involved in food conflicts and what possible solutions are on the table.
In 2007-2008 and 2011-2012, Morocco experienced protests, which the media reported as “bread riots”. In this period, adverse weather events in major grain exporter countries contributed to global food price spikes, while environmental changes were also contributing to the decline in the agricultural productivity of the country. However, even though Morocco is highly dependent on food imports, the drivers of the protests went beyond the issue of rising food prices. Protesters’ grievances were also rooted in the perceived incapacity of the government to fulfil its basic functions vis-à-vis the population. Even though the Moroccan government used temporary subsidies to reassure the population, no long term changes in the political context have been implemented.
Since the end of the Second World War, the South China Sea has been considered to be a major region of instability in Southeast Asia. Whilst territorial disputes over islands and their associated waters seem to be linked primarily to oil and gas resources, fisheries may well become the core of future conflict, as over-fishing has led to increased competition between the fishermen of Vietnam, the Philippines and China. The frequency and intensity of clashes between fishing vessels has escalated in recent years.
Bangladesh experienced a boom in shrimp farming during the 1980s to feed growing international demand. The expansion of shrimp cultivation has led to land grabbing and, in conjunction with the increasing occurrence of extreme weather events, such as cyclones and flooding, has also led to the salinization of soil and water sources. International organizations have since participated in sustainable development programmes in order to promote sustainable shrimp cultivation and decrease salt content in the water.
Piracy off the Somali coast significantly rose in the wake of severe drought and famine in 2008, which left some 60,000 pastoralists facing a livelihood crisis. Climatic changes attributed to global warming and shrinking fish stocks, coupled with the collapse of the state, have led to illegal fishing off the Somali coast, which has facilitated conflicts between pirates and foreign fishing vessels. Conflict resolution efforts to prevent piracy in the West Indian Ocean were initiated by the international community, which created a military task force to patrol the region.
Since the establishment of the Mafia Island Marine Park in eastern Tanzania for conservation purposes, local access to fisheries and other maritime resources has been restricted. As many of the park’s residents are highly dependent on these resources, a conflict has developed between Mafia Island’s residents and the park’s authorities. Some fishers refuse to accept the restrictions, sometimes leading to arrests and violent clashes.
With the fall of the USSR, the three newly independent states of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan experienced a sharp worsening in living conditions as the previous system of Soviet collective farming collapsed. Growing populations and rising temperatures have severely constrained the region’s water availability, affecting farming activities and leading to conflict and competition over water, both for agriculture and for energy production. International organizations’ programmes have proven unable to provide sustainable solutions for the resulting violence.
The Omo-Turkana basin stretches from southern Ethiopia into Kenya. Temperatures in the region are rising and droughts occur with higher frequency and intensity. As Ethiopian pastoralists venture further south in search of water and grazing land, conflicts with Kenyan pastoralists and fishermen are intensifying. Given their transboundary and protracted nature, these conflicts pose a particular challenge to local peace building and disarmament efforts.
In July 2010, Russia experienced a heat wave that decimated the summer harvest, especially in grain producing regions. In response to the drought and escalating rise in grain prices, the Russian government introduced a temporary grain export ban that lasted almost a year, leading to various short and long-term consequences. Globally, it led to an increase in world grain prices, as well as civil unrest in North Africa and a rise in poverty in Pakistan. The Russian grain export ban has arguably created a climate where price spikes and uncertainty are far more likely in the future.
Conflicts between farmers and herders in the Sahel frequently revolve around issues of contested land use and access to water. Increased drought frequency and severity can force nomadic herders to change their itineraries and compete for water and land with other communities, exacerbating the vulnerability of these groups. Livestock raiding is a further source of tensions and violence between different herding communities.
In 2007, it was estimated that 30,000 to 50,000 North Koreans fleeing famine caused by drought and subsequent floods, as well as human rights abuses, sought asylum in China. Future climate change impacts are predicted to further disrupt North Korea’s agricultural sector and food security by way of decreasing crop yields, changing precipitation cycles and increasing incidences of extreme weather events. Given that North Korea has suffered from a decade of famine and economic isolation, and relies on a crumbling infrastructure, the country is not well equipped to adapt to climate hazards.
Undoubtedly, much work needs to be done by the international community to address the environmental dimensions of food insecurity. From livelihood vulnerability to global price shocks, the consequences of climate impacts on food systems are nothing less than a serious global problem. The agricultural sector is yet to be included in international climate and environmental agendas. It is high time for climate diplomacy to look into these gaps and revamp global governance mechanisms to address the risks.