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Ukraine war is causing ‘famine in East Africa’  

29 July 2022


A combine harvester collects grain crops in a field in Ukraine’s Odesa region, last month

A combine harvester collects grain crops in a field in Ukraine’s Odesa region, last month

THE day before Russia and Ukraine agreed a deal to allow food exports across the Black Sea, two bishops drew attention to the food crisis in East Africa that is being exacerbated by the war.

The UN-backed deal was signed last Friday in Istanbul, but, within 12 hours, Russia was accused of having violated the agreement by firing missiles at the port city of Odesa.

The unblocking of grain exports was “a matter of life and death for many people in East Africa”, the Bishop of St Albans, Dr Alan Smith, told the House of Lords on Thursday of last week.

A few days earlier, the International Rescue Committee (IRC) warned that three million people in East Africa could die of hunger unless they received urgent international help (News, 22 July).

At the signing of the deal last Friday, the UN secretary-general, António Guterres, said that it would “bring relief for developing countries on the edge of bankruptcy and the most vulnerable people on the edge of famine”.

Shipments were to be allowed from three Ukrainian port cities — Odesa, Chernomorsk, and Yuzhny — with vessels being monitored by officials from the UN and Turkey.

After cruise missiles struck Odesa, however, the President of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky, said that “no matter what Russia says and promises, it will find ways not to implement it”.

The UK’s Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss, described the attack as “appalling” and “completely unwarranted”.

After denying responsibility for the strikes to Turkish officials, on Sunday, the Russian defence ministry admitted the attacks but claimed that they targeted military infrastructure.

The Guardian reported that at least six people were killed in a barrage of Russian missile attacks on Saturday. Three people were reported to have been killed in Kropyvnytskyi, with at least three more fatalities in Kharkiv.

There were no reported deaths from the strikes on Odesa, but the region’s governor, Maksym Marchenko, said that the “port’s infrastructure was damaged” in the attack.

None the less, the Ukrainian Minister of Infrastructure, Oleksandr Kubrakov, wrote on Facebook that Ukraine “will not back down from our goal of unlocking seaports”. On Saturday, the Ukrainian Ministry of Agrarian Policy predicted that shipments would begin imminently, Politico reported.

The debate in the Lords last week was convened by Lord Alton of Liverpool. He said that “some 400 million people in the world depend on grain from Ukraine”, but that, without access to safe routes across the Black Sea, only a fraction could be exported.

The effects on an already precarious situation in East Africa would be catastrophic, Lord Alton said. The World Food Programme estimates that 89 million people in East Africa — one third of the population — suffered from food insecurity, as low supply drove prices ever higher.

In May, Christian Aid published a report that highlighted the impact that the war on Ukraine was having on food supplies, and urged governments to take action (News, 24 June).

Lord Alton said that, besides providing immediate relief, “we must do all we can to help Ukraine survive this existential assault and restore its place as the breadbasket for millions of people.”

Dr Smith said that the war in Ukraine had “contributed to the appalling conflict and famine in East Africa”, but that this was “only half the story”, as global warming was increasing the prevalence and severity of drought and locust swarms.

The “crisis in East Africa”, he said, showed that the decision to cut the international-aid budget since 2019 was “woefully misconceived”. He noted that British aid to Somalia had fallen by £18 million in the past three years. The IRC report last week showed that food prices had recently risen by a third in Somalia, where 90 per cent of grain is imported from Ukraine.

The Bishop of Southwell & Nottingham, the Rt Revd Paul Williams, drew attention to the particular vulnerability of young people in East Africa, saying that “not only their health but their education and life chances” were affected.

“Informed by some valuable links that churches in my diocese have with schools in Uganda, it is clear that the food crisis is already causing many schools to reduce their teaching week as they simply do not have enough food for the children in their care,” he said.

Bishop Williams, who was making his maiden speech, urged the Government to do more “without delay”. He said: “It is not too late to save lives and prevent a devastating famine.”

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