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EXECUTIVE PERSPECTIVE: Climate change: driving hunger? The World Food Programme tells us why

Ertharin Cousin

19 Oct 2016

October 16 2016 marked World Food Day. We spoke to Ertharin Cousin, Executive Director of the World Food Programme (WFP) to learn more about the impacts of climate change on hunger.   

Sustainability: The Paris Agreement marked a pivotal point in the discourse and commitment to climate change, what has been the most important next step for the WFP?

ED Cousin: At WFP, we recognize that climate change drives hunger. Of the 800 million people who are hungry right now, 80 percent live in areas that we refer to as ‘climate risk’ areas. And every year, we see climate change making droughts and floods more powerful, and more frequent, which makes it more difficult to grow crops and maintain steady agricultural output.

The Paris Agreement marks a turning point in how we approach climate change, and is a major step forward in how the international community recognizes the impact of climate change on food security and hunger. Now, with global political consensus forged on the need for action, WFP is working to fast-track our approaches on climate change while continuing to support the most vulnerable countries around the world.

We have all seen the effects of the recent El Niño, along with the escalating number of storms, floods and droughts all over the world. When we see these changes around us, we are just beginning to get a sense of what our future climate might look like. To address a changing climate, we need action that is ambitious, that is coordinated, and most importantly, is global in its reach. Without this action, the goal of ending hunger and making good on the promises of the sustainable development agenda will not be possible.

Uganda, Nadome, Kotido (Karamoja), 2 June 2015. Investments by the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) to improve the agricultural practices and business potential of smallholder farmers in Uganda are showing impressive results, the organization said today. Photo: WFP/Rein Skullerud

What would you say are the greatest challenges in mitigating climate change in order to help food-insecure communities?

ED Cousin: By now, WFP and its partners have a strong sense of the challenge that climate change presents to ending hunger and food insecurity. So while the problem and challenge are well-known, now is the time to act. And to act, we need resources, and we need funding. Reliable and sustained financing are urgently needed to transform the way we address the impact – and try and get ahead – of future climate disasters.

To get a sense of the scale of the resources we are talking about, take a quick view of WFP’s recent operations. Over the last 10 years, almost half of our emergency operations helped people recover from climate-related disasters. Our response to these disasters came at a cost of US$23 billion.

As we look at these figures, it’s clear we need not only to plan our resourcing, but we also need innovative solutions that can help us plan ahead. And WFP is doing just that. In recent years, we have invested in people and solutions that build resilience, finance climate-related risks and transform the way we address climate disasters.

One such solution, the Food Security Climate Resilience Facility (FoodSECuRE), allows us to address the challenges of climate-risk populations ahead of the next disaster. And it shows that early response to a disaster and building resilience ahead of time can save lives and money. As an example, one recent analysis from Sudan and Niger found that early action using a climate forecast could reduce the cost of emergency response by approximately 50 percent.

But we also need to improve local and national preparedness for response to climate disasters. And safety nets and social protection systems need to be geared up so the most vulnerable can remain resilient in the wake of future climate challenges.

If we invest in early response, build resilience, and build strong safety nets, we can actually reduce the cost of emergency response and save more lives. The economic argument for investment in long-term resilience programming is clear. But we have to continue to make the case with data, with facts, and with resounding clarity.

Ethiopia, Community of Atsbi Womberta, November 2011 As part of WFP’s efforts to enhance community and local food security to prevent emergencies, Food for Assets projects (FFA) are often chosen based on vulnerability analysis.Currently, about 800,000 people benefit from the project. One of the team workers of Tsega Reda. Photo: WFP/Rein Skullerud

How vital is women’s empowerment and gender equality in achieving Zero Hunger?

ED Cousin: To solve hunger, to achieve a world where no one goes to bed hungry at night, we need to focus on women. Reaching women, and involving them in our work is vital to achieving success. In many of the countries where we work, women play absolutely fundamental roles in sustaining agriculture, in feeding families, and in managing households. A huge portion of smallholder farmers are women. Most care-givers are women. Across our planet, women play every role in society, yet are often the first to be denied access to education, expertise and resources.

Empowering women is instrumental to our success to reach zero hunger. Women are one of our greatest assets in achieving zero hunger. By investing in them, and their future, we can help to develop communities and enhance food security.

Bangladesh, Gaibandha, Tongaradha village 29 November 2012 Land work activities under the Food & Cash for Work (FCFW) activities part of the Enhancing Resilience (ER) Programme in Kishorgari union of Palashabari Sub-district.  In the photo: A group of women and men working extending the re-construction of the embankment. Photo: WFP/Rein Skullerud

What gives you the greatest hope that we can achieve Zero Hunger by 2030?

ED Cousin: What gives me hope is that more than ever, people are starting to pay attention to food security. When I think of the recent past, before the 2008 food crisis, the issues of hunger and malnutrition were not high on the global agenda. Yet over the last few years, issues around hunger, food security and nutrition have grown in global visibility, and are now firmly entrenched within the global agenda. There is now great global energy around these issues, and this energy gives me hope that we can pull together and achieve zero hunger by 2030.

This interview was conducted by Sherah Beckley, Assistant Editor, Thomson Reuters Sustainability


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