Nairobi — The UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) warned on Thursday that drought and conflicts were worsening food security across Africa, especially in its eastern part, amid strong global harvests.
According to FAO's new edition of Crop Prospects and Food Situation report, food supply conditions are robust, but access to food has been dramatically reduced in areas suffering civil conflicts.
"This is an unprecedented situation. Never before have we been faced with four threats of famine in multiple countries simultaneously," said FAO Assistant Director-General Kostas Stamoulis, who heads the Economic and Social Development department.
According to the UN food agency, some 37 countries require external assistance for food, including 28 African countries as a result of lingering effects of last year's El Nino-triggered drought on harvests.
FAO said while agricultural production is expected to rebound in southern Africa, protracted fighting and unrest are increasing the ranks of the displaced and hungry in other parts of the world.
Famine has been formally declared in South Sudan and the food security situation is of grave concern in northern Nigeria, Somalia and Yemen.
"It demands swift action which should consist of immediate food assistance but also livelihood support to ensure that such situations are not repeated," Stamoulis said.
In South Sudan, 100,000 people were facing famine in Leer and Mayendit counties, part of former Unity State, while there was an "elevated risk" that similar conditions existed in two nearby counties.
Overall, about 4.9 million people across the country were classified as facing crisis, emergency or famine. That number is projected to increase to 5.5 million, or almost half the country's population, at the peak of the lean season in July.
In Somalia, the combination of conflict, civil insecurity and drought have resulted in more than double the number of people, now estimated at 2.9 million, being severely food insecure from six months ago.
Drought has curtailed fodder for pastoralists and the third consecutive season of poor rainfall is estimated to have reduced crop production in southern and central regions to 70 percent below average levels, leaving food stocks depleted.
According to FAO, a total of 8.1 million people in northern Nigeria are facing acute food insecurity and require urgent life-saving response and livelihood protection.
That comes despite the above-average cereal harvest in 2016 and reflects the disruption caused by conflict as well as the sharp depreciation of the Naira.
In Yemen, 17 million people or two-thirds of the population are estimated to be food insecure, while almost half of them are in need of emergency assistance, with the report noting that "the risk of famine declaration in the country is very high."
FAO said conflicts and civil unrest in Afghanistan, Burundi, Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, Myanmar and Syria are also exacerbating food insecurity for millions of people as well as affecting nearby refugee-hosting countries.
According to FAO, maize harvests in Southern Africa, slashed by El Nino, are forecast to recover this year, with South Africa's output expected to increase by more than 50 percent from 2016, with positive trends likely in most nearby countries.
However, an outbreak of armyworms, along with localized flooding in Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe, could limit larger production gains in 2017.