Five emerging food security crises that may predict future humanitarian operations

Residents of Léogâne in Haiti receive food supplies distributed by the World Food Program and the Agency for Technical Cooperation and Development in January 2010. Irregular patterns of drought and flooding hurt the country's agricultural sector. Photo by: Sophia Paris / United Nations

There is no exact science when it comes to predicting when and where the next major humanitarian crisis will occur.

We do know that when the next major crisis that grabs headlines does happen, it will likely foreshadow a wave of NGO staff-ups and RFP tenders. Within the humanitarian and international development community, there is a strong interest in “humanitarian intelligence” that can predict the focal points of looming operations and organizational build-ups before they unfold. These will be the geographies of future projects, future satellite offices, and future deployments.

This begs the question, what is a reliable benchmark for humanitarian and international development professionals to provide a hint about what the future may hold? Certainly looking at displacement patterns (refugees and IDPs) as well as conflict escalation trends are solid candidates.

In addition, exploring emerging food security crises is an excellent trend to consider. Food security emergencies can result from natural disasters ranging from cyclones and drought, to conflict, displacement, to environmental factors including locust plagues and agricultural diseases. Food security emergencies are by definition “slow burn” disasters — they unfold over longer periods of time than a cyclone, earthquake or tsunami. Yet the dimensions of food insecurity can creep deep into the fabric of the societies impacted. As a stressor, food insecurity can greatly exacerbate and escalate complex emergencies.

Here are five emerging food security emergencies that are presently flying slightly under the radar of today’s top international news headlines. If they continue to deteriorate, they have the potential to impact hundreds of millions of people and become “emerging markets” of future humanitarian and international development operations.

Certainly, food insecurity in Syria and South Sudan, and the ever-present risk in the Horn of Africa will continue garner attention and be a central focus of humanitarian activities for the foreseeable future. Yet, if left unaddressed, these five emerging crises could also be a sneak preview of RFPs and vacancies to come in the months and years ahead.


locust plague on a scale not seen since the 1950’s is taking hold in Madagascar. The livelihoods and food security of 13 million residents are at risk, and half of the nation’s pastures and cultivated land are infested. Rice and maize crops losses range from 40 percent in some areas, to a 100 percent in others. The Food and Agricultural Organization is warning that the plague could cost hundreds of millions of dollars and last for years if not immediately addressed.

The infestation and resulting food security emergency can partially be blamed on budget cutbacks on locust mitigation efforts, however Cyclone Haruna exacerbated the problem earlier this year by dumping large amounts of rainfall that flooded over 2,100 hectares of rice fields and ultimately provided additional vegetation to support locust swarms.

An emergency program is being rolled out between the FAO and Madagascar’s Ministry of Agriculture. The program allocates $41.5 million USD to ultimately treat 2 million hectares by 2016. The program will not only support locust abatement issues, but will monitor dimensions of the crisis on public and environmental health. For organizations already operating on the ground such as Medair and CARE, the locust plague has strong potential to become a major influence on their operations.

Marshall Islands

When U.S. Federal Emergency Management officials deployed to assess the Republic of the Marshall Islands’ ongoing drought, they were greeted by Marshallese officials with the phrase ”welcome to climate change.” Indeed, after an area of high pressure squelched rain-producing trade winds for much of 2013, the Marshall Islands joined Tuvalu and Kiribati as symbols of climate-induced disasters in the vulnerable Pacific Islands. The drought emergency caused a wide-scale die-off of tree crops — bananas, coconuts, breadfruit and others — that populations on remote atolls are dependent on for subsistence consumption.

For humanitarians, the Marshall Islands food security crisis not only symbolizes the increasing likelihood that the Pacific Islands will be a theater of humanitarian focus in the coming years, but it highlighted the unique international architecture of relief operations. As a Pacific Island nation in free association with the United States, initial deliveries of food supplies were coordinated by USAID, FEMA, and soon, the US Department of Agriculture. Japan also played a key role as well as the International Organization for Migration. Governments and NGOs from Australia and New Zealand are both playing a role in providing immediate aid also, in concert with a coordination of both nations’ strategic doctrines to play a more active role in the region. Oxfam Australia and New Zealand affiliates have been extremely active in recent years working with grassroots NGOs on issues ranging from Tuvalu’s sea level rise, to recent cyclone-induced food crises in Vanuatu, Fiji, and American Samoa.

On the horizon, USAID is coordinating a forthcoming Request for Proposals for a contractor to manage a climate fund that would provide $20-24M USD to support climate adaptation measures throughout the entire region, including the Marshall Islands. The project’s five year period of performance is slated to begin in October 2013.


As the peak of what is predicted to be an active hurricane season approaches, Haiti’s agricultural sector continues to reel from a simmering crises that has left 1.5 million people food insecure. Since last year, Haiti’s countryside has been ravaged by irregular patterns of flooding and drought, as well as severe impacts from both hurricanes Isaac and Sandy. This compounding series of disaster impacts is a stressor on agricultural production for cash crops and subsistence agriculture alike — including staples such as plantains, bananas, breadfruit, yams, and coffee. 

Organizations including the Lambi Fund of Haiti and CARE are actively engaged on the ground in community-based settings. CARE is providing food vouchers to more then 25,000 families to purchase rice, maize, vegetable oil, and seeds. The Lambi Fund is working with a network of grassroots organizations to repair agricultural infrastructure.

Yet the heart of Atlantic hurricane season is rapidly on the way, and predictions of an above normal number of storms is not good news for the island nation. Organizations from Management Systems International to DAI to Futures Group who are recruiting for vacancies will no doubt need to confront the complex and converging impacts of post-2010 earthquake reconstruction (over 320,00 are still in IDP camps in Port-au-Prince), the post-Sandy food crisis, and the further risk brought by hurricanes in 2013. A direct hit could quickly accelerate the current food crisis into a central focus for the humanitarian community.


Violence is on the rise again in Darfur, and the food security situation is deteriorating accordingly. Renewed conflict has triggered a new wave of internal displacement of 250,000 people since the beginning of the year, and is diverting resources away from vital agricultural activities. The World Food Programme’s feeding operations in Darfur are being strained accordingly. As WFP Sudan Country Director Adnan Khan said recently, the conflict “could very well derail our plans to promote long-term food security and build resilience among communities.”

The food security emergency is complex and multifaceted. The deteriorating security situation near the IDP camps in Zalingei is resulting in a failed planting season for the displaced, which could accelerate a humanitarian crisis. Despite plentiful rainfall, armed herdsman are reportedly grazing camels and cattle on vital farmland and disrupting agricultural production. The uptick in conflict, including recent killings of U.N. peacekeepers and humanitarians is also disrupting relief operations — World Vision recently relocated its hub of operations to a safer location in southern Darfur. Many NGOs with camp management expertise have fled the region, which further complicates the ability to coordinate tenuous internal displacement issues.

At a recent controversial donor conference in Qatar, a range of actors pledged $1.05 billion to support the region’s reconstruction and development over the long term. Donors include Qatar, the U.K., Turkey, the World Bank, European Commission, Qatar Red Cross, Arab Fund for Social and Economic Development, and other actors. Devex reported that this round of pledges is enough to initiate short term and foundational projects in the region.

For organizations such as World Vision and Mercy Corps who are actively recruiting to augment their operations in Darfur, if violence-exacerbated food insecurity continues to deteriorate humanitarian conditions, they may find themselves on the front lines of a complex emergency that could again vault to the top of headlines around the world.

West Africa

As 2013 began, there was some cause for optimism in West Africa and the Sahel. Although still tenuous, the food security of 2011-2012 was improving due to better rains and harvests.  The African Union made a pact to end hunger by 2025. And in the face of analysis that crops such as rice, corn, and wheat may not fare as well in the face of climate change, Africa was doing quite well with its hearty drought-resistant crop, cassava, which is a staple for everything from food consumption to industrial starches, to beer.

Enter cassava brown streak disease. In May, scientists were astonished that this virus was tearing its way through Africa’s cassava crops and heading towards the continent’s number one producer, Nigeria. Ironically, the disease may be catalyzed by climate change, as the its vector — whiteflies — proliferate in warming climates.

The consequences of cassava brown streak disease infiltrating Nigeria’s cropping areas are staggering. In the medium term, as many as 150 million people dependent on cassava may be at risk. If unsolved, agricultural production may disrupt food security for as many as 300 million people throughout the continent.

This is an issue for every organization that has been working to help address the existing Sahel food security crisis, including Oxfam, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. If Nigeria’s cassava cropping areas are infested, then the international relief and development may be confronting this crisis for years to come.

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About the author

  • Nick Burk

    Mehmet Burk is the founder of the Relief Analysis Wire, which provides analysis on emerging disasters and trends throughout the international humanitarian community. As a special offer for Devex readers, you can access an exclusive report covering Syria, the humanitarian impacts of the Arctic meltdown, food crises, emerging disasters and more by visiting

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