Violent conflicts are behind increased hunger in sub-Saharan Africa says a new study. Here, a farmer carries forage for his mule in southwestern Ethiopia. Further north in the country, starvation spread this year in the face of civil war. (Credit: Jacquelyn Turner, International Research Institute for Climate and Society)

NEW YORK — Climate change often takes the blame for extreme weather conditions across the globe. When it comes to a new wave of famine in Africa, however, scientists are pointing the finger at war, not warming.

After years of progress eliminating hunger, some African nations have suffered sharp reversals since 2014. Currently, some 700 million people — nearly nine percent of the world’s population — go to bed hungry, according to the United Nations (UN). One of the hardest-hit regions is sub-Saharan Africa.

Many people quickly assume that the region’s brutal droughts are stoked by climate change. However, the recent study says that long-running wars, not the weather, are to blame for the latest crisis. The findings show that while droughts routinely cause food insecurity in Africa, their contribution to hunger has remained steady or even shrunk in recent years.

Violent conflicts in Africa
Frequency of violent conflicts 2009-2018 in 14 African countries studied. (Credit: Adapted from Anderson et al., Nature Food 2021)

Instead, rising widespread, long-term violence has displaced millions of people. The crisis has led to increased 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, but academics have not compared the importance of drought to violence in triggering food crises in a holistic way,” says study leader Dr. Weston Anderson, of Columbia University, in a statement.

To reach their conclusions, the research team analyzed 2009-2018 figures from the Famine Early Warning System, a 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 Dr 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; they even 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 more extreme conditions, and it took people time to rebuild their livestock herds.

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

African farmers
Drought periodically causes widespread food insecurity across much of sub-Saharan Africa, and may exacerbate the effects of warfare. Here, farmers in the village of Diouna, southern Mali, listen for weather bulletins. (Credit: Francesco Fiondella/International Research Institute for Climate and Society)

Among the worst hit regions has been north east Nigeria, where the Boko Haram guerrilla army has waged a relentless hit-and-run campaign against the government and much of the population for the past decade. In South Sudan, a multi-sided civil war that started in 2013 continues.

Sudan and Somalia have also seen warfare-induced increases in hunger, but in those nations, droughts have been the more dominant factors. The study shows that in most cases, pastoralists are the most affected by violence as they are with drought, because they are more likely to live in the most violence-prone areas.

Now, Ethiopia is seeing hunger increases again, mainly due to below-average rainfall, but the civil war that erupted in the country’s Tigray region in 2022 has greatly added to the misery. The study did not examine this new conflict, but a recent UN report said that more than five million people in the region urgently need food aid, and many are already seeing full on famine.

The researchers also looked into a third possible cause of hunger: locusts. These pests 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 team analyzed whether the onset of drought contributed to flare-ups of violence, and thus more hunger. Co-author Richard Seager, a climatologist at 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.

“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,” adds Seager.

“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. 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,” says Dr. Anderson. 

These findings are published in the journal Nature Food.

South West News Service writer Stephen Beech contributed to this report.

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1 Comment

  1. KGB says:

    Africans in Africa do not grow food for the same reason that an African in USA buys a tall beer rather than a six pack. If he bought a six pack every other bro on the curb would grab one. Property rights are not part of primitive cultures. American Indians had no concept of property rights. Hence the term ‘Indian giver’. If an Indian sold you a horse he would come back the next night and steal the horse. An Indian would steal everything in your garden and all your livestock. Hence the motto ‘The only good Indian is a dead Indian’. Thence the problem was cured.