The conflict in Ukraine will impact hunger and malnutrition worldwide

March 8, 2022
Photo by Kieran McConville

The Ukraine-Russia conflict has severe implications on worsening hunger and long term malnutrition for people in Ukraine, but for millions of people globally.

In just about two weeks, more than a million people in Ukraine have had to flee their homes as a result of the worsening conflict. Families are being separated, homes left behind, hospitals and schools destroyed, and essential services severely disrupted. Food, water, health assistance, and support continues to be vital. Concern, like many other organizations, is working with others to respond to the humanitarian crisis that is unfolding.

Rebuilding infrastructure destroyed by this conflict will take years, while one cannot even begin to imagine how long rebuilding lives and recovering from the mental and emotional stress as a result of this conflict will take.

At the same time, we are very worried about the knock-on effect this conflict will almost certainly have across the world, and especially on some of the communities facing extreme poverty far beyond the borders of Ukraine and Russia. It will result in further increases in rates of global hunger and malnutrition in many other parts of the world, including those in Africa and Asia that are already facing acute levels of food insecurity.

A man walks in front of a destroyed building after a missile attack in the town of Vasylkiv, near Kyiv, on February 27,2022. (Photo by DIMITAR DILKOFF/AFP via Getty Images)

Conflict and access to food

Both Ukraine and Russia form a massive share of the global bread and oil basket. The International Trade Centre shows that these two countries provide at least 25% of global wheat requirements. They also supply around a fifth of corn, and around 60% of the world’s sunflower, safflower and cotton seed oil. Russia also exports approximately 13% of the world’s fertilizers, an important agricultural input. However, the ongoing conflict, sadly, is severely destabilizing food systems. Food production, storage, distribution and transport in these two countries is being adversely impacted, while their exports have also been hit hard.

This means escalating food prices and massive food shortages, the knock-on effects of which will be felt in countries that depend significantly on staple grains, oil and seed imports from these two countries. Ultimately, people living in extreme poverty will bear the brunt of this. At the start of 2021, around 45 million people were at risk of catastrophic hunger. Concern and Welthungerhilfe’s Global Hunger Index report highlighted how protracted and violent conflict is driving global increases in hunger and malnutrition, alongside climate change – and exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The speed of action and scale of funding, and the response from donor governments to this, has been very commendable. While this funding is critical to respond to the impacts of this conflict, and address the needs of people who are fleeing Ukraine, it is important that the conflict itself is brought to an end, that over the course of it the International Humanitarian Law is upheld, and that humanitarian access is not blocked.

Jane Wanjiru holds her baby Mark (11 months) as a nurse uses a MUAC band to check his nutrition status. Photo: Ed Ram / Concern Worldwide

Forgotten crises

While the scale of the Ukraine crisis is overwhelming, we must not forget the other ongoing crises where the level and urgency of action has been abysmal. The Horn of Africa region is presently facing one of its worst droughts in over four decades, perpetuated by the La Niña weather phenomenon. Protracted conflict has also negatively impacted food availability, affordability, and consumption in this region for years. Presently around 13 million people across Somalia, Kenya, and Ethiopia continue to face severe hunger, and over 5.5 million children are at risk of death from acute malnutrition. Yet, the funding for this crisis is nowhere close to what is needed to save these lives and protect livelihoods

Just in Somalia itself, the humanitarian appeal is only roughly 2% funded. In Kenya, the Drought Flash Appeal has been better funded at 20%, but is still well below what is needed to ensure that people are not forced to make difficult choices that threaten their resilience and means out of poverty in the long term. If the rains over the next couple of months fail, this hunger crisis will reach catastrophic proportions. Millions of lives will be lost. Where young children do survive, they will suffer life-long irreversible impacts of stunting. Moreover, the impact of the Ukraine-Russia conflict on hunger and malnutrition in these and their surrounding countries still remains to be seen, but the likelihood of this being disastrous and long-standing is very high.

While the situation in the Horn of Africa is precarious, more than 22 million people also face acute hunger in Afghanistan as a result of the ongoing economic instability, conflict, and a drought that has been one of its worst in nearly three decades.

Jaro Dubais a Concern program participant in North Horr, Kenya. Photo: Ed Ram

While the demands for funding are ever increasing, there is only a small window to respond to save lives. Donors must get their act together promptly to mobilize funding to tackle hunger and malnutrition. It is important that donor funding for humanitarian response is additional, and does not come at the expense of longer-term investments to build resilience to shocks, such as through initiatives to improve nutrition and health, education, social protection and livelihoods. But, building in flexibility into long term resilience funding can allow for timely provision of humanitarian response in anticipation of crises, thus helping prevent catastrophic consequences.

The Somalia drought in 2016-17 compared to the 2010-2011 crisis taught us that rapid and timely humanitarian response was essential to prevent colossal loss of life. Unfortunately, this time around, the alarm bells have been ringing for a few months now, and any further delay will be more devastating.  With donors galvanizing around the Ukraine crisis and now also on Afghanistan, we hope the Horn of Africa quickly receives the attention and resources it needs to help save millions of lives, preserve livelihoods, and prevent further entrenching of extreme poverty.

Right now, the world is facing multiple crises at the moment, but it is only right that the global humanitarian and development community – including donors, the UN, and civil society – does everything it can to tackle each of them to the best of our abilities.

Ukraine Conflict Will Impact Hunger Worldwide