Poor countries face mounting food crisis fuelled by Russia-Ukraine war


People in low- and middle-income countries around the world face the prospect of a hunger crisis as the cost of wheat has increased more than doubled, while milk has climbed by two-thirds.

More than 14 million people are now on the brink of starvation in the Horn of Africa, according to the International Rescue Committee – the result of a terrible drought combined with the pandemic and shortfalls of grains from Russia and Ukraine.

The two warring countries are collectively the source for one-fourth of the world’s exports of wheat.

Last week, as India banned exports of most of its wheat due to climate induced heat wave, concerns deepened. India is the world’s second-largest wheat producer and holds abundant reserves.

Yemeni Walid Al-Ahdal, who is living with his family in a refugee camp outside the capital Sanaa struggles to buy food from his meager salary as a janitor. He has nothing to feed his 2-year-old daughter and his three boys, ages 3, 5 and 6. He consoles them with tea and sends them to bed.

“My heart hurts every time my child looks for food that is not there,” Mr. Al-Ahdal said. “But what can I do?”

The hunger gnawing at families in war-torn countries such as Yemen highlights a broader crisis confronting billions of people in the world’s less-affluent economies as the consequences of Russia’s assault on Ukraine are compounded by other challenges: the continuing pandemic, a global tightening of credit and a slowdown in China, the second-largest economy after the United States.

“It’s like wildfires in all directions,” said Professor Jayati Ghosh, an economist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “This is much bigger than after the global financial crisis. Everything is stacked against the low- and middle-income countries.”

The most direct repercussions are seen in the rising prices of cooking fuel, fertiliser and staple foods like wheat, disrupting agriculture and threatening nutrition in much of the world.

Sanctions imposed on Russia, a major oil and gas exporter, have constrained the supply of energy, sending prices skyward and limiting economic growth, especially in countries heavily dependent on imports.

The war in Ukraine threatens to impede the humanitarian response, lifting by as much as 16% the prices of components like peanuts that are blended into a therapeutic paste used to treat children facing life-threatening levels of malnutrition, Unicef warned.

On a fiercely hot morning in Cameroon’s largest city, Douala, Michael Moki, a motorcycle taxi driver, pulled up to a glass case containing a scattering of bread rolls.

A jovial man with a ready laugh, Mr. Moki, 34, ordered 500 Central African francs’ (S$1.11) worth of rolls – breakfast for his family of five. When the vendor handed him the bag, the smile fell from his face.

“Your bread gets smaller every day, and the price increases,” he complained to the young man behind the counter. “Do you think I can eat all of this and get full?” “The price of flour has gone up,” the vendor replied.

This kind of exchange has become commonplace in markets across Africa and parts of Asia.

The fighting in Ukraine has prompted farmers in Ukraine to flee their land, while Russia has blockaded Ukrainian ports on the Black Sea – vital conduits for exports.

Last week, the World Food Programme warned that the shutdowns of the ports threatened to worsen severe food insecurity in Ethiopia, South Sudan, Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan.

Russia and Ukraine supply all the wheat imported by Somalia and Benin and at least two-thirds of the supply reaching Tanzania, Senegal, the Congo, Sudan and Egypt, according to research from the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development.

Globally, export prices for wheat and corn soared more than one-fifth in the month after Russia invaded Ukraine, according to the World Food Programme.

Many poor countries now confront an uncomfortable choice: increasing spending to aid their populations while adding to their debts, or imposing budget austerity and courting social conflict.

Last week, public rage over rapid inflation amid a spiralling debt crisis in Sri Lanka triggered the downfall of the government. The risks of upheaval look dire in Tunisia, Ghana, South Africa and Morocco, Oxford Economics warned in a recent report. (Source: The Straits Times)