Wednesday, September 3, 2008

INTERVIEW-Food crisis, silent famine to continue: World Bank

By Rob Taylor

CANBERRA, Sept 3 (Reuters) - There is no end in sight to global food shortages and multiple crises from climate change and energy and water scarcity will soon intensify what is already a silent famine, the World Bank said on Wednesday.

"There may be a slight dip, but we're going to see sustained high food prices for the foreseeable future," Katherine Sierra, the Bank's Vice President for Sustainable Development told Reuters in an interview.

"What we're seeing right now is a kind of quiet famine, people that have really had to reduce their food consumption quite considerably, a 100 million people moving back into poverty in Africa," Sierra said on the sidelines of an agriculture and climate change conference in Australia.

Many nations are braced for further instability after food riots in 37 countries and international rice prices soaring from around $400 to $1,000 a tonne. On Wednesday benchmark Thai rice was at $720. Growers such as Cambodia, Vietnam, India and China are cutting exports to keep rice at home.

Global food prices, based on United Nations records, rose 35 percent in the year to the end of January, accelerating an upturn that began in 2002. Since then, prices have risen 65 percent. Wheat prices peaked in March at $454 a tonne, more than doubling between mid-2007 and March this year.

Sierra, in a conference speech, said governments around the world had failed to properly invest in agricultural research, and step-up production of new types of food in time to meet demand.


With the world's population climbing towards 9 billion by 2050, demand for food is forecast to rise 110 per cent over the same period. At the same time, global warming is cutting into the supply of fresh water available to grow crops.

While many Europeans were opposed to genetically-modified (GM) crop types, Sierra said many showed promise in alleviating food shortages when "climate-ready" crops were critical.

Australia, experiencing its worst drought in 117 years, had expertise in improving crop yields in the face of climate change and water shortages, Sierra said.

Australia's Agriculture Minister Tony Burke told the conference GM food crops would be needed on a massive scale to help address global food shortages, saying biofuels cutting into food crop availability were not to blame.

"I don't believe we should be turning our back on any part of science. It would be a mistake for anyone to think that a reversal of those biofuels policies will get us out of the challenge that we face with global food shortages," Burke said.

Sierra said research must focus on hardier crops tolerant to drought, heat and salinity, as well as the range of cereals to include roots, tubers and grain legumes like peas, lentils and soyabeans, many of which do not need industrial fertilisers.

More effective plant breeding would also help, while the food potential of tropical fruits and even medicinal herbs had not been properly explored, she said.

(Editing by David Fox)

Safe water, disease control priorities during India-Nepal flooding

The World Health Organization is providing supplies and technical assistance in response to the deadly flooding in India and Nepal that has also displaced millions of people.

Heavy monsoonal rains on 18 August swelled the Kosi River to breaking point, resulting in flood waters breaching an embankment and causing severe flooding in Nepal's Sunsari district as well as in 16 districts of adjacent India's Bihar state. The river seems to have changed its course, flooding areas of Bihar that are not usually inundated.

More than 3 million people in over 1700 villages have been affected in India and 70 000 in Nepal. While search and rescue operations are ongoing, both countries will face immediate and medium term challenges in providing safe water, sanitation and access to health care to prevent and control communicable disease outbreaks.

"No outbreaks have been reported in India nor Nepal, but the flooding, risk for water- and vector-borne diseases due to the massive population displacements, hot climate, stretched hygiene and sanitation levels and eventual pools of stagnant water pools left behind by receding flood waters," said Dr Poonam Singh, Deputy Regional Director for WHO's South-East Asian Regional Office.

At least 56 people have died in the floods in India, according to the Indian Ministry of Home Affairs, while more than 220 000 houses have been damaged. Measles immunizations will begin for all children aged up to 5 years in affected areas.

Indian authorities are leading relief efforts in the country's northern Bihar state and have established accommodation and health centres for thousands of displaced people. Authorities are providing 20 million chlorine tablets for water purification. WHO is in close contact with the Ministry of Health and is supplying 100 chloroscopes for measuring water quality, as well as health promotion and communications material related to measles immunization and public health awareness.

In Nepal, WHO has sent emergency medicines and equipment capable of treating more than 120 000 people for one month to flood-affected areas in the Sunsari district, where 27 shelters have been established. Additional anti-malaria and anti-diarrhoea supplies have also been deployed, while larger quantities of medicines have been pre-positioned in three hubs. Staff from WHO's Country Office have also joined field missions to respond to and assess health needs, as well as deliver medicines.

Nepal's Haripur, Shripur, Laukihi and Paschhim Kushaha districts are among the worst-affected by the flooding, which has also made the country's east-west highway impassable.

"With so many people forced from their homes into extremely challenging conditions, all effort must be made to ensure the supply of safe drinking water, food, sanitation and accommodation facilities, as well as essential medicines," Eric Laroche, Assistant Director-General for WHO's Health Action in Crises Cluster. (reliefweb)