(170927) -- RUNGWE, Sept. 27, 2017 (Xinhua) -- Farmers pick tea leaves at a tea plantation in Rungwe district, Mbeya region, Tanzania, Sept. 27, 2017. (Xinhua)

JOHANNESBURG - The number of hungry and malnourished people is rising for the first time in over a decade. 

According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation, 815million people are affected, and there are frequent incidents of acute and widespread food shortages.

The UN recently warned that 20m people were at immediate risk of dying of hunger. The agency counted four countries at particular risk: Yemen, 10m; Nigeria (north east), 4m to 6m; South Sudan, 4m to 6m; and Somalia, 2m to 4m. A further 18 countries are suffering a high magnitude of food insecurity.

But emotion aside, are we sure that we really understand hunger and malnutrition, or what is known as food insecurity? What are the factors behind the numbers rising? Is it because of climate change, with more droughts happening? Is it over-population? Is it degradation of the planet, leading to desertification, pollution and deforestation? Or does violence play the biggest role?

To begin to answer these questions, it is important to understand the context, the causes and possible solutions.

Why words matter

Hungry people suffer however their situation is labelled. Unfortunately, politicians are more likely to act in the case of a famine, where people are dying of starvation, than for the hunger that accompanies long-term food insecurity. This is because famine reaches the headlines, whereas hunger and chronic under-nutrition are below the media’s radar. But arguably the distinction is artificial and unhelpful.

In 2004, the Integrated Food Security Phase Classification Global Partners launched a classification of food insecurity for use in Somalia. After it was tested internationally, it was officially adopted by the UN.

Level 5 of this scale is “catastrophe”, and famines are declared when the technical criteria are met. These are: at least one in five households faces an extreme lack of food; more than 30percent of the population is suffering from acute malnutrition (wasting); and at least two people out of every 10000 are dying each day.

In 2011, there was one in Somalia and in February 2017 another in South Sudan. The UN is being sparing in its use of “famine”, but Level 3 (“crisis”) and Level 4 (“emergency”) food insecurity should, in theory, trigger urgent action. It is frustrating that semantics matter so much and that donors are still slow to act.

What causes famine

The causes of famine and food insecurity are multiple. In the past, they have been seen principally as the result of natural disasters that reduce food production or interrupt trade. But towards the end of the 20th century it became increasingly clear that the failure of institutions, particularly political and economic, and the degradation of traditional customs of mutual support were also heavily involved.

Symptoms of these developments include poor governance, failing states, corruption and dysfunctional markets. It is therefore no surprise that all the countries suffering from famine suffer from one, if not all, of these to varying degrees.

The starving children in Yemen, Nigeria, South Sudan and Somalia are not victims of drought. Rather, dysfunctional states, which manifest as conflict in its most extreme, are the present cause of famines. Although politics brings about famines, natural disasters are certainly part of the background, reducing food production and challenging the resilience of individuals, households and wider social groups.

We all face the prospect of climate change, and the question is whether this will contribute to worsening food insecurity for poor people in Africa and Asia.

It is predicted that more vulnerable environments will develop as a consequence of global warming. It seems particularly likely this will happen in the Asian monsoon and that in Africa and the Mediterranean aridity will spread. This will increase the vulnerability of people living in densely populated poor countries. As climate change modelling becomes more sophisticated, the consensus is that this type of famine risk will increase over the coming decades.

Moving forward

A crucial anti-famine strategy is investing in science to provide early warnings. The most important large-scale monitoring programme is the Famine Early Warning Systems Network, which is now operating in 34 countries using evidence-based analysis of data from livelihood zones, climatic data, satellite images of drought, food prices and trade data.

Another major development that’s needed is investment in infrastructure and agriculture. Countries such as Bangladesh and Ethiopia have hauled themselves out of the mire of food insecurity by investing in agriculture, markets, roads and communications.

Other countries - for instance, Botswana, Namibia and South Africa - are taking up the policy of “social protection” where regular and predictable support - such as weather-indexed insurance, public works programmes, emergency food aid and buffer stock management - is provided to vulnerable people before famine shocks, such as civil conflict, bad harvests, transport disruption or drought, occur.

If policymakers don’t come forward with these or other solutions, acute food insecurity and chronic under-nutrition will last as long as ultra-poverty persists, particularly among marginalised groups in marginal environments.

Yes, famine and food insecurity are complex, and finding a solution is difficult. But we now realise that hunger is not inevitable and that we have a moral duty to solve it as soon as possible. The only thing missing is the political will.

Peter Atkins is a professor at Durham University.This article was originally published in The Conversation.