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Conflict, climate crisis and Covid-19 escalate child malnutrition emergency - UNICEF

One in every five deaths around the world in children under age 5 is caused by severe acute malnutrition, according to a new report.

A child given a food packet at a malnutrition ward in Yemen
A child given a food packet at a malnutrition ward in Yemen
Image: Mohammed Mohammed/Xinhua via PA Images

THE CLIMATE CRISIS, Covid-19, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have exacerbated a global emergency in child malnutrition, according to a new report.

UNICEF, the United Nations’ humanitarian organisation for children, has said one in every five deaths around the world in children under age 5 is caused by severe acute malnutrition.

The condition is also known severe wasting, which involves a low weight to height ratio and affects 45 million children under age 5.

Conflict and other crises around the world are affecting both food supply and the capacity of relief organisations to provide crucial aid, according to the report.

Speaking to The Journal, UNICEF Senior Adviser in Emergency Nutrition Saul Guerrero Oteyza said that the “combination of the tail-end of the socioeconomic impact of the pandemic, the conflict that is affecting many of these countries, as well as the knock-on effect of the Ukrainian conflict, and climate all come together in this perfect storm of factors”.

“Maternal and child nutrition is a function of the stability of the environment in which women and children live,” Guerrero Oteyza said.

“Any shock to that stability, whether it’s displacement because people have to move because of conflict, for example, or severe drought, or another rapid-onset crisis, upsets that balance.

“That balance has already been quite tenuous in many parts of the world over the last few years, but what we’re seeing now is those shocks coming in more regularly, those climate-related shocks coming more regularly, and more severely every time.

In the Horn of Africa, which includes countries like Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Eritrea, Somalia and Sudan, UNICEF has been tracking deteriorating climatic conditions for several years and the current situation is the product of a “severe cumulative effect”.

“The climate is not only leading people to be on the move and therefore to create those sorts of shocks that come with displacement, but the loss of livelihood left, right and centre,” Guerrero Oteyza said.

“When 30% of all the livestock in Somalia is considered to be now wiped out by the drought, it starts to give you a sense of the vulnerability that it creates.”

The new UNICEF report outlines that at least 10 million children suffering from severe wasting do not have access to ready-to-use therapeutic food (RUTF), which is considered the most effective treatment.

Global shocks to food security caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the pandemic, and persistent droughts due to climate change are increasing levels of severe wasting, it details.

At the same time, the price of ready-to-use therapeutic food is expected to increase by up to 16% by the end of the year because of a sharp rise in the cost of raw ingredients, with the cost of shipping and delivery also expected to remain high.

In a statement, UNICEF Executive Director Catherine Russell “for millions of children every year, these sachets of therapeutic paste are the difference between life and death,” Russell said.

“A 16% price increase may sound manageable in the context of global food markets, but at the end of that supply chain is a desperately malnourished child, for whom the stakes are not manageable at all.”

It’s estimated that an additional 600,000 children could be unable to access life-saving treatment at current spending levels.

Guerrero Oteyza said that access to water, supplementing diets, and facilitating breastfeeding are important measures that can help prevent child malnutrition.

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“There are measures that can be taken at a financial level to give us the opportunity to respond earlier to some of these climate-related shocks, to prepare services, health services, food systems in these countries to withstand the climate-related shocks.”

He said how and where funding is directed is just as important as the amount that is raised.

“Business as usual isn’t going to cut it and sometimes the same amount of resources spent or provided in a slightly different way could go a long way in preparing us to deal with the climate effects,” he said.

“It’s not just a question of what we do, but how we are empowered to do these things that will make a huge difference.

“Earlier is the key, because we see these things brewing. The climate is moving, and it’s moving fast, but in many ways, in many parts of the world, it moves in predictable ways – there are seasons when you know it’s going to be worse.

“But right now, we don’t always have the capacity to act when we want, let alone how we want.

“If we could just make some difference in our collective capacity to operate and respond when we can and when we know it’s early enough to make a difference for those lives for those households and their livelihoods, we should.”

About the author:

Lauren Boland

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