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ELCA World Hunger

Hunger is about so much more than food

I’ve been watching the news of the Mississippi river flooding with interest. In any immediate way, it has nothing to do with me. I’m hundreds of miles away, going about my days. But at the same time, the news coverage gives me pause beyond the horrible fascination of watching a disaster.

Disasters are impressively good at causing or exacerbating hunger. The immediate causes are obvious: if your house is under water, where do go? Where will you get food if roads, grocery stores, and restaurants are under water, too? How do you get potable water if the water treatment facilities aren’t functioning? This is all well known. Infrastructure destruction gets lots of attention because it’s so dramatic; it makes for good TV. But as I watch, I can’t help but recognize how little separates me from hunger. We in the U.S. rely on our infrastructure so completely, yet on a daily basis, I rarely acknowledge it. It’s just there, reliable and ubiquitous. Until it isn’t.

The longer-term impacts are equally problematic, and usually so quiet. I can almost guarantee I won’t hear anything about this flood by September, but it will still be a current event in the sense that its effects will not have ended. Besides people’s homes, how many businesses have been flooded? How long will it take them to reopen, as insurance claims are filed and renovating or rebuilding is done? How long will people be out of their jobs as they wait for companies to reopen? Even worse, how many businesses will not survive an extended closing? And how many didn’t have insurance to start with, taking the risk of establishing a business (or home!) in an uninsurable floodplain location? Some won’t even try to start again. What are the tax implications to already strapped states if a swath of their industrial base isn’t functioning or even goes away? How many years does that impact last, and how does it affect the public as governments make budget decisions? There are so many ways a disaster changes the economic situation, and therefore the hunger and poverty situation.

Then there are the direct and long-term environmental impacts to hunger as a result of flooded farmland. Some of this country’s most fertile land is currently covered in water – just in time for the spring planting. As the flood waters drain, in some places topsoil will be washed away. In others, soil will be contaminated by whatever the river picked up along the way. Will there be long-term consequences to field productivity and, consequently, food supplies? Productive, arable land is obviously an important factor in hunger (especially as the global population increases; see David’s last post), and one we don’t think too much about in this very fertile country.

So many things that impact hunger from one seemingly localized and distant flood (albeit a big one)! One thing disasters make clear: fighting hunger is so much more than giving people food.

-Nancy Michaelis

Disaster in Haiti, Both Natural and Man-made

A few months ago, I wrote a blog post about how natural disasters contribute to hunger, and how those living at or near poverty are disproportionately vulnerable. Following that line of thought, it’s hard to imagine how things could get much worse in Haiti. First they were hit by Tropical Storm Fay. Hurricanes Gustav and Hanna followed, and Ike now threatens. According to the BBC, 200 people have been killed by these storms so far, tens of thousands have been displaced, and hundreds of thousands need assistance. And it’s not just minor assistance. The same BBC article says 200,000 in the city of Gonaives have not eaten in three days and potable water is hard to find. And as one would expect, homes and livelihoods have been destroyed. But perhaps the biggest problem is that few in Haiti have the resources to really do anything about it.

Such an onslaught of natural disaster would be difficult for the people and government of any country to bear, but in a place like Haiti, the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, it’s especially devastating. Already struggling with extreme poverty, hunger, and rising food prices, the people of Haiti rioted earlier this year and threw out their prime minister. Now, with the hurricanes, rice crops have been destroyed and fruit trees have been blown down, an especially large problem in a place where two-thirds of the population are involved in agriculture. The loss of crops can only add to the long-term suffering, hunger, and political instability.

The short-term is no better. With thousands displaced and no food to be found, Haiti’s government is ill-equipped to help its people. With such a poor economy, infrastructure like roads and communication systems weren’t great before the storms. Wind and water damage have made them even worse, hampering aid efforts and posing longer-term challenges for rebuilding. What’s more, poverty has led to deforestation in Haiti, exposing soil which is now washing away in mudslides. Besides the immediate danger caused by mudslides, there are future ramifications: loss of topsoil, reduction in vegetation, and long-term degradation of the environment.

In a place where poverty is so widespread and the government so uncertain, it’s hard to imagine how Haiti will recover. Certainly we Western countries have a role to play, both in the immediate, urgent need for food and water, and also in assisting with lasting, sustainable changes.

In the meantime, if you’re looking for a case study on the causes of hunger, read up on Haiti. It highlights several factors, including: a history of corrupt, unstable, and ineffective governments; an insufficient and inaccessible education system; lack of employment opportunities; poor infrastructure; a degrading environment; and a susceptibility to natural disasters in the form of hurricanes. It’s not a comprehensive list, but it’s a frighteningly good start.

Too much water – and other disasters

I was looking at pictures of flooded Iowa today and was awestruck by the destructive power of too much water. I’ve blogged about how important water is to life. But it’s amazing how you can have too much of a good thing. So much land completely under water, killing the crops and destroying livelihoods. Between floods, tornadoes, and wildfires, it’s been a rough month or two in the United States.

How many people’s lives have been altered by nature in the past couple of months? And how many of them have the means to recover? Some are insured, have savings, and other support structures. Reconstructing their fractured lives will be difficult and emotional, to be sure, but largely a matter of time. But those living at or near poverty before disaster struck are facing a whole different reality. Disasters destroy homes, leaving some with nowhere to live. Disasters close businesses, sometimes permanently, causing loss of employment and income. Disasters interrupt health care treatment, making it difficult (or impossible) to tackle the work of recovering. Disaster interrupt education. For those who were struggling to stay in school in the first place, it can be difficult to go back. In the short term, disaster can destroy local food supplies and roadways, making short term hunger very real for everyone. But longer term, especially in rural areas, those who relied on gardens for even some of their food face new and unwelcome challenges.

The list of ways that natural disasters exacerbate the conditions for hunger and poverty go on; I’ve mentioned just a few. Knowing how many disasters the United States has had already this year, I wonder what the longer-term effect will be. How many who were living on the edge of poverty will now be solidly in it? The U.S. Census Bureau provides annual data about poverty in this country. It will be interesting to see how 2008 compares to 2007.