War makes you hungry

Hunger increases the risk of armed conflict. Conversely, wars endanger the nutritional situation of the population – especially when hunger is deliberately used as a weapon of war.

Many millions of people have fled armed conflict, for example from Syria, Afghanistan and Somalia. Especially in poorer countries, flight and displacement lead to hunger because people there have few reserves.

The dependence between hunger and war

Crises and conflicts force people to flee and paralyze agriculture. A secure feeding of the population is no longer given. © Welthungerhilfe

Armed conflict undermines people’s food security in many ways:

  • Flight and displacement lead to farmers no longer being able to cultivate their fields and often losing all their belongings.
  • Roads and agricultural infrastructure would be destroyed, and seeds, fertilizer and fuel would be in limited supply and at high prices.
  • As a result of this and limited security, trade also suffers.
  • Since many foodstuffs are no longer available or are simply too expensive, people eat less and usually more unbalanced. This leads to a lack of nutrition, which particularly affects children. In addition, there is often neither clean drinking water nor adequate medical care, which further weakens the children in particular.

Nearly two-thirds of all children suffering from chronic malnutrition now live in developing countries affected by armed conflict. Twenty years ago, it was less than half that number. At the national level, military spending is often increased and resources are diverted from developmental sectors such as agriculture, rural and social infrastructure. Conflict researcher Paul Collier calculated that a country’s economic growth is reduced by an average of 2.3 percent for every year it is in armed conflict, and it takes 17 years to recover that loss.

Hunger increases the risk of conflict

Hunger increases conflict risk – but is hunger also a trigger for violent conflict? The so-called "hunger riots" in response to food price hikes in Haiti in 2008 or the Arab Spring uprisings in 2011 suggest as much. But the reality is more complex and the shortage of food is usually only one of several reasons responsible for the outbreak of violent conflicts. This is particularly true in countries that are heavily dependent on food imports.

Poverty is one of the main factors leading to armed conflict

Weak state structures, stagnant economic growth, high youth unemployment and unequal access to income, land and natural resources form the basis for the exclusion of entire population groups and create a climate of lack of prospects that makes people more susceptible to violent strategies.

Climate change exacerbates the food situation of many people. Without an ambitious climate policy, food security will fall by the wayside.

How are climate change and conflicts linked??

A much debated link also exists between conflict and the consequences of climate change. There is much overlap between countries that are particularly vulnerable to climate-related disasters and those with recurring armed conflicts, such as the broader Horn of Africa region (Ethiopia, Kenya, Somalia, Sudan, and South Sudan) and the Sahel region of West Africa. Extreme weather events such as droughts and subsequent food shortages can create or exacerbate conflicts. Nevertheless, the ability or inability of governments to ensure the participation of all populations in development processes and to respond adequately to humanitarian crises seems to be the key factor.

When hunger is used as a weapon of war

As much as hunger creates tense situations and leads to conflict, it is also intentionally instrumentalized as a weapon of war. It is a double-edged sword. Warring parties prevent humanitarian supplies from reaching aid organizations by blocking supply routes or even looting convoys carrying vital supplies. This means food and medicine are not reaching those in need, further straining an already tense situation for civilians. Starvation of the population is deliberately used as a means of pressure to make the opposition party capitulate.

Factsheet: Hunger as a weapon of war

Besieging, destroying, looting, blockading, bureaucratic hurdles – but recently hunger as a weapon has been used more and more again.

The displacement of civilians and the siege and occupation of a region are also reasons why hunger is used as a weapon of war. Moreover, it is not only the hostile parties who starve, but also "own people" who suffer from these extreme situations. Above all, it is children who are most affected by life-threatening hunger. In countries such as Yemen, which were already threatened by famine before the war, the life-threatening hunger situation is becoming extremely acute.

Projects against hunger and poverty.

This means of collective punishment and psychological warfare has been considered a war crime since the adoption of UN Resolution 2417 in 2018. Warring parties and governments are obliged to allow humanitarian aid operations to take place. Violation of these statutes is being prosecuted, because systematic obstruction of humanitarian aid efforts is considered a violation of human rights. However, experts know that humanitarian aid alone is not enough if it does not arrive. In the long run, political solutions must emerge that protect international humanitarian law. The cycle of hunger and war must be broken to protect innocent civilians.

How to break the cycle of hunger and war?

  • In sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East, the situation is currently more than critical. Major efforts are needed to ensure that war and hunger do not continue to reinforce each other here.
  • When famine threatens, humanitarian aid must go to those who need it most, regardless of political considerations.
  • In doing so, long-term efforts to improve local food production must not be undermined.
  • Strategies that help people adapt to the effects of climate change and improve their nutritional status also contribute to conflict prevention.
  • But it is crucial to also address the underlying causes of hunger and armed conflict, including poverty and worsening inequality, and hold governments accountable for them.

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