What comes after Ebola: Hunger

West Africa is on the brink of a major food crisis as a result of the Ebola outbreak.

The Ebola crisis has disrupted local trade and farming, writes Elver [Getty Images]

As Ebola continues to ravage West Africa, leaving approximately 5,000 people dead, the region is now on the brink of a major food crisis. The world’s worst Ebola epidemic has endangered harvests and sent food prices soaring in West Africa.

If there is no timely intervention by the international community in the form of a massive humanitarian aid campaign and a comprehensive plan for long-term sustainable development, the post-Ebola food crisis will take an even bigger human toll than the disease did. Experts are predicting that over a million people in the region will require food aid to preclude food shortages, spikes in prices, and possible famine.

Indeed, food insecurity is threatening not only the three Ebola-stricken countries, but the entire region.

Averting a nightmare famine

The countries that are hardest hit by Ebola, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Guinea, had previously endured years of devastating warfare and internal conflict, and had only recently become self-sufficient in food. However, the Ebola crisis has curbed the progress these countries have made and threatens to undo its positive effects.

Restrictions on people’s movement and quarantine zones to contain the spread of the Ebola led to panic and subsequent food shortages and price hikes. Farmers were severely affected by this crisis, as many abandoned their farms and harvests fearing contracting the disease. This in turn resulted in major disruptions in food production.

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In Sierra Leone up to 40 percent of local farms were abandoned in the worst affected areas. In some cases, communities are already facing food shortages due to poor road accessibility, while others have threatened to disobey quarantine orders in order to search for food supplies. 

In Senegal and other countries in West Africa, food shortages have worsened after regional trade was disrupted due to border closures and quarantine measures.

Border crossing closures and the reduction of trade through seaports have curbed food supplies in the whole region. Most West African states are net cereal importers; trade and transportation disruptions have dramatically increased the price of such imports.    

Cash crops under threat

In addition to subsistence farming, cash crops are also under threat. While disruption of cash crop (cocoa, palm oil, rubber, etc) agriculture is not directly tied to food insecurity, it still harms communities that rely on these crops for their livelihoods. Without the money from a cocoa harvest, for example, many rural farmers in West African countries, like the Ivory Coast, would not be able to afford buying food.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation at the UN (FAO) has already stressed the dire effects of reducing the purchasing power of tens of thousands of already vulnerable households in Guinea, Liberia, and Sierra Leone. “[This] means less food on their plates and increased nutritional risks for families already on subsistence diets,” Bukar Tijani, Regional Representative for the FAO in Africa, said in a statement.

The World Bank study shows that no matter what happens in the coming months, Ebola will have a huge economic impact. According to the bank, the economic toll from the Ebola epidemic could reach $32.6bn by the end of 2015.

Foreign direct investment is also seriously threatened by the Ebola crisis. This is exacerbating the already high unemployment rates and pushing the region even further towards a major food crisis. 

The World Bank study shows that no matter what happens in the coming months, Ebola will have a huge economic impact. According to the bank, the economic toll from the Ebola epidemic could reach $32.6bn by the end of 2015.

It is important for the international community to take immediate action that will ensure not only the aversion of famine now, but also the creation of a sustainable system of food production for the future. Delivering food directly to the population by humanitarian agencies is not a sufficient response, and can even be harmful in many cases.

Furthermore, it would be a big mistake to push these countries towards agricultural policies that prioritise growth, quantity, and export-oriented cash crops over local production and traditional crops. Instead, a positive approach would encourage ecological agriculture that respects local people’s food security and food sovereignty.

Sustainable response

A sustainable response to the food crisis would include agricultural policies that enable states to become self-sufficient in food and allow farmers to exert significant control over government decision-making in the agricultural sphere.

Food security is essential and the lack of adequate food can quickly become a destabilising factor in countries that have suffered from conflict and insecurity for decades.

Disasters, natural or man-made, can sometimes be an opportunity for a fresh start. The post-Ebola recovery is a good time to rebuild the agricultural systems in these countries based on the principles of social justice, sustainability and environmental responsibility.

The international community cannot delay its action on the looming food crisis. To wait and delay a rapid response may well lead to famine, insecurity and the return of conflict. The consequences of post-Ebola food insecurity could cause much more human suffering and chaos than the disease itself.

Hilal Elver is a Special Rapporteur on right to food. She is a research professor in global studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and co-director of the Climate Change Project.