Complex/manmade hazards: famine, food insecurity

Definition and characteristics

Food-security emergencies are complex disasters with multiple root causes. Severe drought and/or conflict can produce an acute food emergency, whereas chronic food insecurity is often a reflection of poverty, a worsening debt crisis, the economic effects at household level of the HIV/AIDS pandemic or mismanagement or abuse of water resources. In such cases, food can be both unavailable (insufficient production) and inaccessible (distribution problems, beyond consumers' purchasing power).

Drought is a slow onset disaster, building up over several years of failed rains and lost harvests. Rural communities can sometimes cope with one or two successive rain failures and crop or cattle losses: the situation becomes a crucial emergency when they have exhausted all their purchasing resources, food stocks and usual coping mechanisms.

Poor nutrition, brought on by food shortages, reduces people's resistance to disease, and makes outbreaks of preventable diseases likely. Water shortages, which force people to use polluted water, increase the risk of waterborne diseases.

Food-security problems may drive populations to other areas, such as the outskirts of towns, in search of better conditions. Large settlements of displaced people can form which again increases the risk of disease outbreak. In terms of people's livestock, lack of grazing and water shortages can decimate herds, putting pressure on families that rely on their existence to provide food and food products.

Famine and nutritional emergencies can happen quite suddenly. The Federation carries out a lot of food distribution in these situations. Occasionally the Federation carries out supplementary feeding, targeting certain vulnerable groups suffering from poor nutrition. This often includes women who are pregnant or breast-feeding and children under the age of five.

In general, the Red Cross Red Crescent response to drought and food insecurity prioritizes food supplies, safe water and basic sanitation, basic health services, food security surveillance and nutritional monitoring and seeds and tools distributions.

Safe water and basic sanitation are a key concern, as wells and other ground water supplies dry up or become polluted.

Health teams, reinforcing basic health services of existing clinics, are an important element of food security response, since illness reduces people's ability to benefit from what little food is available. The teams can also take on supervising food distributions, carrying out nutritional surveillance and monitoring food security. In certain extreme cases, mobile health teams may be necessary to reach scattered villages or nomadic camp areas.

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Ongoing operations:

  • Horn of Africa food crisis (December 2008)