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IN ONE YEAR THE WAR IN UKRAINE HAS RESULTED IN ONE OF THE LARGEST DISPLACEMENTS OF PEOPLE SINCE THE SECOND WORLD WAR AND A DRAMATIC INCREASE IN HUMANITARIAN NEEDS IN THE REGION.
Action Against Hunger has responded accordingly by opening projects in Ukraine, Poland, Romania and Moldova, while being particularly vigilant about the wider impact of this conflict on global food insecurity.
On 24 February 2022, after years of tensions, Russia launched a major military offensive on Ukraine. The Russian armed forces quickly took control of vast expanses of land in the north, east and south, while aerial and artillery shelling caused widespread destruction throughout Ukraine.
In April, the Ukrainian counter-offensive forced the withdrawal of Russian forces in the north of the country. Fighting then continued in the east and south. The front-line is continually shifting and many areas are becoming accessible anew to humanitarian players who are responding to ever-increasing needs. However, Russia’s attempt to control parts of the Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk and Zaporijia Oblasts makes humanitarian access to these areas unpredictable.
In October, Russia’s attacks on Ukraine’s energy infrastructures intensified, further disrupting public services, including water, electricity, heating, healthcare, education and social welfare. The energy crisis is exacerbating humanitarian needs and sparking concern among national and international aid organisations, in a country where winter temperatures can drop below minus 20 degrees Celsius.
Over the year, the conflict, with repeated violations of international humanitarian law, has resulted in widespread destruction and a dramatic increase in humanitarian needs in the country. In the first weeks of the conflict, millions of people fled the country. It is now estimated that nearly 8 million people have fled Ukraine and 6 million people are internally displaced.
In the absence of a political solution to the conflict, humanitarian needs are continuing to grow, particularly in areas affected by fighting and shelling, where there have been large numbers of civilian casualties and damage to critical infrastructures. 17.6 million people are in need of humanitarian assistance and 14.6 million people need health assistance in the country.
11 million people in Ukraine are in need of water, sanitation and hygiene assistance. This includes people directly affected by the hostilities or internally displaced to collective centres and host communities. This creates a high risk of disease spreading, due to lack of water, sanitation and hygiene.
“Without a political solution to the conflict, the humanitarian needs will continue to rise, especially in conflict-affected areas where there are large numbers of civilian casualties and damage to critical infrastructure. We ask all players to ensure the protection of the humanitarian space and to facilitate humanitarian operations on the ground”.
Charlotte Schneider, Director of Operations, Action Against Hunger.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO), the war has created major obstacles to access to food and exacerbated the vulnerability of local, regional and international food systems already threatened by climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic.
In Ukraine, the reliance on coping strategies is beginning to exhaust the resilience of families affected or displaced by the conflict. Food insecurity is no longer a problem limited to the easternmost part of the country, but is now a widespread phenomenon fuelled by reduced food production and inflation soaring to nearly 25%, which has a direct impact on the ability of the entire population to access food. An estimated 10 million people in Ukraine are now in need of food aid.
Internationally, Ukraine’s preponderant place in the production and export of staple foods such as wheat and maize has raised fears of an increase in food insecurity in other parts of the world. The outbreak of the war last February set off a shock wave on the food market due to the substantial halt in Ukrainian exports, in a context already made tense by the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, the anticipated devastating effects on global food insecurity have not materialised and the ongoing conflict in Ukraine cannot be seen as the only cause of the food and nutrition crises to come. They are the result of a multitude of factors (economic and social crises, speculation, health crisis, conflicts, governance problems, failing food systems, climate disruption and extreme weather events, etc.). This shows, for Action Against Hunger, that the war in Ukraine should not be analysed as the cause of the food crises but should be seen as a revealing and catalysing factor of the underlying and historical causes of hunger. In this regard, the war in Ukraine has brought to light the failure of current food systems at the global level.
“We lived in Kharkiv, in an area under very heavy bombing. Many of the homes have been destroyed. We can no longer live there. That is why we are now living in an anti-aircraft shelter. Here, we are safe. For a long time, the children were afraid to go out and couldn’t sleep at night. Whenever we can, we buy food products. We wash up in the sink. We don’t have a shower. Sometimes there is hot water, and sometimes we have to wash with cold water. Or we use the kettle to heat it. We have access to hot meals. We receive constant humanitarian aid. We only buy 10% of what we need.”
Oleksandr, displaced with his family in Kharkiv, June 2022.
From the very start of the conflict, Action Against Hunger’s emergency teams assessed the situation and began to respond to humanitarian needs in connection with partners in Ukraine and neighbouring countries (Poland, Romania, Moldova). Today, Action Against Hunger’s response is aimed at providing assistance to the most vulnerable populations in Ukraine and refugees in the three neighbouring countries in conjunction with the local authorities and organisations, while adapting our operational response, in accordance with changes in the conflict.
Today, the coordination of Action Against Hunger in Ukraine is based in Vinnytsia. Part of the operational response takes place in the western part of Ukraine (Chernivtsi base) with activities relating to assistance to displaced persons and the host community (mental health, food distributions, cash transfers to cover the most urgent needs of populations). The other part of our activities is concentrated in the eastern part of Ukraine (Dnipro, Zaporijia and Kharkiv bases) where the teams directly assist the very vulnerable populations affected by the conflict but also through humanitarian partners already on the ground (daily distribution of hot meals, essential products and hygiene kits, supply of drinking water, strengthening of sanitation and donations of equipment to the government agency in charge of water supply for the rehabilitation of water treatment and distribution systems affected by the air strikes).
Action Against Hunger will also soon extend its intervention to the south of the country, particularly in the Odessa and Mikolaïv Oblasts. Priority will be given to the distribution of food and basic necessities.
From March to December 2022, our teams helped more than 480,000 people across the country. However, with the arrival of winter and the destruction of energy infrastructure by the Russian army, the threat of a collapse of the electricity grid has been significantly impacting the living conditions of already highly vulnerable populations and the ability of humanitarian players to meet their needs.
“Whatever the country, our partners and the people we help are often not neutral in the conflicts that affect them. Action Against Hunger thus makes sure to respect the principle of neutrality in its actions.
In Ukraine, we operate in territory subject to martial law, where the authorities can requisition any organizations resources. As a result, we cannot escape the possibility that the humanitarian contribution to the response to the needs of the population may indirectly provide assistance to the fighting forces, even if Action Against Hunger refuses this.
We are fully aware of this porosity and work with partners who share our values and principles of intervention, in order to limit any compromise on the principle of neutrality. In particular, any activity that might contribute directly to the war effort is a red line for us, which would lead to the cessation of this activity, whether through partners or in direct intervention. It is for this reason that our teams are working with our partners to establish mechanisms to ensure the financial transparency, ethics, accountability and neutrality of our actions. The support we provide is for civilians only.”
Anthony Kergosien, Regional Director of Operations for Action against Hunger
Poland currently hosts 1.6 million Ukrainian refugees. Since March 2022, the Action Against Hunger teams have been assisting the local authorities and organisations to provide the best possible response to the needs of people seeking refuge in the country. Action Against Hunger has consequently engaged through financial support, food distribution, and mental health and psychosocial support, as well as action facilitating access to water, sanitation and hygiene. The projects deployed by Action Against Hunger in Poland have helped more than 20,000 people in Rzeszow and Warsaw.
Romania has seen more than 106,000 Ukrainian refugees on its territory since 24 February 2022. Action Against Hunger is involved through multi-use financial assistance, mental health and psychosocial support, as well as general support to transit centres and logistics platforms. All Action Against Hunger activities in the country have been implemented via local organisations – Carusel (Bucharest), Ambulanta Life (Iasi) and BRCT (Suceava). These activities helped financially assist refugees so that they could maintain their autonomy and provided them with psychosocial support. In Romania, Action Against Hunger and its local partners have provided assistance to more than 56,000 Ukrainian refugees.
“Seeing my hometown was a shock. I couldn’t recognise my beautiful country any longer. All around me was the feeling of death… That was the first time I realised that this conflict is actually happening. After a few months, the situation in Odessa began to deteriorate, so my husband asked me to flee the country with our daughter. It was the hardest decision I ever had to make in my life, but my husband was right. We left Ukraine and arrived in Romania in August, at the UTCB Refugee Centre. This is a safe space for us”
Sara, a Ukrainian refugee in Bucharest, Romania, at the UTCB Refugee Centre, one of Action Against Hunger’s partners, where the psychosocial team trains and supervises volunteers in psychological first aid.
More than 102,000 Ukrainian refugees have registered in Moldova since 24 February 2022. However, over the past year, it has been estimated that more than 750,000 refugees crossed through Moldova to reach another European country. Since March, Action Against Hunger has supported the Ukrainian refugees in the country, as well as the most vulnerable Moldovans, by providing cash, food and hygiene kits. Hot meals are also distributed to people passing through, at border crossing points. Action Against Hunger implements its activities directly or through local partners. In total, we came to the assistance of more than 100,000 people, including 56,000 Ukrainian refugees who were given hot meals at the Palanca border crossing.
Ukraine and Russia held a prominent position in world food trade before the conflict broke out in Ukraine last February. In 2021, Ukraine and Russia alone accounted for 12.5% of global wheat production and respectively ranked 5th and 1st in terms of wheat exports. They were important suppliers of wheat to many countries in Africa, the Middle East and Asia.
The blockades of Ukrainian ports for several months led to the almost total shutdown of Ukrainian exports from March to August 2022. In addition, the Ukrainian government has instituted measures aimed at restricting exports so as to feed the population. The decline in Ukrainian exports over the past year is now estimated at more than 50%.
Moreover, the hostilities have had a direct impact on Ukrainian domestic production. According to the Ukrainian government, harvests are expected to fall by more than 40% due to the reduction in farmland, the lack of fertilisers, and labour and fuel shortages.
The rise in energy prices (coal, gas, oil) brought about by the conflict and international sanctions against Russia have also contributed to a rise in food prices, by increasing production and supply costs. In the short term, the price of several basic foodstuffs has shot through the roof. Wheat prices on the markets soared to more than €440 per tonne in mid-May, an increase of more than 40% compared to the start of the year.
The Black Sea Grain Initiative is an agreement signed by Russia, Ukraine, Turkey and the United Nations to allow the export of Ukrainian grain despite the war in Ukraine. The agreement signed on 22 July 2022 in Istanbul applies until March 2023 and may be extended if the parties agree.
As at end-October 2022, the agreement had enabled more than 18 million tonnes of cereals and other agricultural products to be exported. However, the agreement is fragile and has been the subject of repeated diplomatic wrangling.
Since the signing of the agreement, developed countries have captured more than 60% of the grain leaving the country. Overall, China is the largest recipient of Ukraine’s grain exports, Spain is the second and Turkey the third.
This diplomatic initiative, which has made it possible to slow the rise in grain prices on international markets, does not, however, meet the direct needs of food-insecure countries.
One year after the start of the conflict in Ukraine, the rise in international prices and its consequences have subsided. Staple food prices have returned to pre-war levels or even decreased compared to 2021, showing that international price volatility can have multiple causes and be the subject of significant speculation. Attributing the instability of food markets solely to the conflict in Ukraine would thus be a convenient shortcut to explaining the increase in food prices and availability around the world and the resulting levels of food insecurity.
In a highly interdependent global market, the war in Ukraine has necessarily had impacts on commodity prices and has contributed to sustaining tense situations over the accessibility and availability of certain food products around the world. However, this assertion needs to be qualified, as food crises have roots in a multitude of structural factors such as economic and social crises, conflicts or problems linked to climate disruption and extreme weather events. All these structural causes of world hunger should not be overshadowed by the war in Ukraine, which is by no means the Alpha and Omega of famines to come.
Last March, Antonio Guterres, Secretary General of the United Nations, declared that the world could experience “a hurricane of famine” due to the indirect effects of the war in Ukraine. Ten months after that speech, while the widespread food catastrophe seems to have been averted, the data on world hunger remain worrisome. The latest report on the state of food insecurity in the world, published by the FAO, shows that today 828 million people suffer from hunger. This figure has been steadily increasing for several years and in particular for the last three years, as a result of the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The war in Ukraine shines the spotlight on the fragility of our food systems. It compels us to strengthen, in the short term, the existing famine prevention mechanisms, and in the long term to transform our food systems”
Jean-François Riffaud, Director General of Action gainst Hunger.
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