War: Conflicts feed hunger, hunger feeds conflict


Warring parties drive people off their land, kill livestock and damage crops. They destroy infrastructure and transport networks, disrupt markets and push food prices up. Conflicts are one of the main causes of hunger. But a lack of access to food can also be a cause of war.

Power Poverty Hunger: Graphic 6
Teaser Image Caption
Various groups have been waging a civil war in Yemen since 2015: one side is supported by a coalition led by Saudi Arabia and the other by Iran

Violent conflicts are one of the main causes of malnutrition worldwide. In 2019, conflicts were the trigger for six of the ten worst food crises. And all countries that experienced famine in 2020 were affected by violent conflict. In Africa, these were Burkina Faso, Congo, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Nigeria, South Sudan and Sudan; in the Middle East, Iraq, Palestine, Syria and Yemen; in Central Asia, Afghanistan and conflict regions in Bangladesh and Pakistan.

While most countries have made gains in the last 25 years in the fight against hunger and undernutrition, the situation has stagnated in countries affected by conflict, and in some places it has got worse. This is worrying because the number of conflicts worldwide is increasing.

Civil wars and internal conflicts now play a bigger role than wars between states. More than half of the people affected by wars and civil conflicts live in rural areas. Conflicts disrupt all aspects of agriculture, from production to marketing and rural services. Conflicts have both immediate and long-term consequences for agriculture and so for the food security of the population.

In conflict regions, crops are destroyed, livestock are stolen and people are driven off their land. The example of the Central African Republic shows some possible long-term consequences. In 2013, armed militias and rebel groups sparked a civil war that continues to this day. By 2015, cereal production was 128,000 tonnes, 70 percent below pre-conflict levels. In 2018 the harvest was only marginally higher, at 134,000 tonnes.

Power Poverty Hunger: Graphic 7
Conflicts, climate change and economic shocks are currently the biggest threats to food security

The ways conflicts affect food security and agriculture depend on the local situation. The effects may be direct, and indeed may be a deliberate aspect of military strategy or war tactics. This is the case in Yemen, or in the Ethiopian region of Tigray. Production infrastructure and livestock in these locations are being deliberately targeted, local people are put under siege, their movements are restricted, and they starve. In other conflicts, hunger is an unintended but structural consequence of war, for example when the fighting leads to displacement and destroys livelihoods, food systems and markets. These can push food prices up and reduce the purchasing power of households.

The situation of people who are forced to leave their homes or their country because of conflict is especially menacing. Displaced people are among the most vulnerable populations in the world; they frequently suffer from food insecurity and undernourishment. An estimated 80 percent of those who are displaced by conflict live in countries where people struggle to feed themselves adequately. The number of those displaced by conflict and violence has risen continuously since 2011. By the end of 2019 it had reached a record level of 79.5 million people – almost twice as many as in 2010.

Displaced people cannot cultivate their own land and find it hard to get jobs, and so have virtually no way to provide for themselves. They may remain dependent for years on assistance from governments or aid agencies. Their position is made much worse by rising global food prices. In many places, prices have again reached levels similar to those seen during the food crisis of 2008–9.

Cover: Power Poverty Hunger

This article is part of the  booklet Power Poverty Hunger. With this publication we want to make a contribution to a lively social debate. We want to present the causes of hunger and malnutrition and show that clear political rules and strategies are needed to counter these developments. We want to show that hunger and malnutrition are the consequences of injustice, instability and poverty – and that policies must therefore also address these underlying causes. Download the booklet here.

Hunger can also give rise to conflict, for example over access to land and water. An example is the weather-related changes in migration routes that pastoralists use, as in the drought years 2015–2017. Rising food prices may also reinforce the perception of injustice against the state when sufficient food is available but poorer sections of society do not have enough money to buy it. The bread riots in 2008 in Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Egypt, Haiti and Indonesia are examples of this.

It is not just – or even mainly – a question of producing enough food to fight hunger. Hungry people must have access to healthy food. For this, they depend on an environment in which they can produce enough food themselves, or earn enough money to buy it, and in which they are cushioned in the event of an emergency. Conflicts destroy or undermine the basis of such a long-term strategy to achieve food-security.