War, famine, disease, disasters - 2022: A year staring at apocalypse

01 January 2023


Farhana Haque Rahman :
A year that started with Russia's invasion of Ukraine and is ending with famine in Africa, while still spreading death and misery through an enduring pandemic and a deteriorating climate crisis - 2022 has been an apocalyptic warning of the frailty of our planet and the woeful shortcomings of humankind.
Beyond the stark statistics of millions of people displaced by war and natural disasters, it has been a 12 months that tragically highlighted our global interconnections and how a confluence of events and trends can bring another year of record levels of hunger.
Tens of thousands of soldiers and civilians (numbers given by the UN and involved parties vary enormously) have been killed in Ukraine since Russia launched war on February 24. More than 7.8 million Ukrainians have fled the country. Billions of dollars have been spent on armaments.
But the impact of the war has been felt worldwide, driving up prices of basic commodities such as oil, gas, grain, sunflower oil and fertilisers. Somalia, now in the grip of the worst drought to hit the Horn of Africa in 40 years, used to import 90 per cent of its wheat from Russia and Ukraine.
Commodities have been weaponised. Countries slipped back into recession, just as they were slowly recovering from the economic distress of Covid-19 lockdowns. A deepening relationship between sanctioned Russia and an energy- hungry China exacerbated existing tensions with the US over Taiwan. The result? China broke off climate cooperation efforts with the US in the run-up to the COP27 climate conference hosted by Egypt in November with 200 countries and 35,000 people attending.
Against the backdrop of devastating floods in Pakistan and West Africa, and with 2022 on its way to becoming one of the five hottest years on record, agriculture and food security joined the COP27 agenda. Talks ran into extra time, as they tend to, and countries of the global South emerged with the landmark creation of a special fund paid by wealthier countries to address the Loss and Damage caused by climate change in the most vulnerable nations.
"After 30 contentious years, delayed tactics by wealthy countries, a renewed spirit of solidarity, empathy and cooperation prevailed, resulting in the historic establishment of a dedicated fund," said Yamide Dagnet, director for climate justice at the Open Society Foundations, reflecting a sense of hard fought victory among developing countries.
Still unresolved however is which countries will give money and to whom. China in particular seems uneasy over which category it belongs to. However COP27 joined its 26 forerunners since 1995 in not reaching a binding agreement on cutting fossil fuel burning which has continued to rise globally, except for a brief pandemic dip. For this, many branded it a failure. "Humanity has a choice: cooperate or perish. It is either a Climate Solidarity Pact - or a Collective Suicide Pact," UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres told the opening plenary session. By the end, many felt the conference had concluded with the latter. Rather than falling, the latest estimates from the Global Carbon Project show that total worldwide CO2 emissions in 2022 have reached near-record levels.
Victims of devastating floods, heatwaves and forest fires, and severe drought in Central Sahel and East Africa surely needed no confirmation from the final decision text of COP27 which recognises "the fundamental priority of safeguarding food security and ending hunger" and the vulnerability of food production to climate change.
In this respect, COP27 recognised the importance of nature-based solutions - a theme driven by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) in ringing alarm bells on the degraded soil, water sources and eco-systems caused by intensive agriculture with overuse of fertilisers and pesticides. According to FAO, more than 25 percent of arable soils worldwide are degraded, and the equivalent of a football pitch of soil is eroded every five seconds. The planet's bio-diversity is being devastated as a result. As highlighted by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) in stressing the vital connections between Nature and people, a landmark report in July found that 50,000 wild species provide food, cosmetics, shelter, clothing, medicine and inspiration. Many face extinction. As international agencies and NGOs (and media outlets) jostled and competed for funding to deal with the fallout from wars and climate emergencies, the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) which is active in the Sahel cautioned that only 1.7 per cent of all climate finance reaches small-scale producers in developing countries and as little as 8% of overseas aid goes to projects focused primarily on gender equality. Women's empowerment has been made a major focus of ASAP+, IFAD's new climate change financing mechanism.
Women and girls are paying "an unacceptably high price" among communities hit by severe drought in the Horn of Africa, according to the UN Population Fund (UNFPA). It launched a $113.7 million appeal to scale-up life-saving reproductive health and protection services, including establishment of mobile and static clinics in displacement sites.
Also overshadowed by wars and pandemics in 2022 were marginalised communities lacking a voice, suffering diseases such as leprosy or exploited in the form of child labour.
Yohei Sasakawa, WHO Goodwill Ambassador for Leprosy Elimination, says many issues have been sidelined because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Society has the knowledge and means to stop and cure leprosy, he says in the 'Don't Forget Leprosy' campaign by the Sasakawa Leprosy Initiative.
"When people are still being discriminated against even after being cured, society has a disease. If we can cure society of this disease-discrimination-it would be truly epoch-making," he told IPS.
A similar message was delivered by Nobel Laureate Kailash Satyarthi who told the 5th Global Conference on the Elimination of Child Labour that a mere $53 billion per annum - equivalent to 10 days of military spending - would ensure all children in all countries benefit from social protection. International Labour Organisation and UNICEF statistics from 2020 show at least 160 million children are involved in child labour, a surge of 8.4 million in four years. Children denied education became a burning issue in Afghanistan in March when the Taliban declared that girls would be banned from secondary education. The UN said 1.1 million girls were affected. The late-night reversal of a decision by Taliban authorities to allow girls from grades 7 to 12 to return to school was met with outrage and distress, inside and outside Afghanistan. Denial of human rights to girls and women has fuelled the desire of many to get out of Afghanistan and seek a better life elsewhere, adding to the millions around the world forced to flee their homes because of conflict, repression or disaster. The Ukraine conflict has displaced more than 14 million people, about a third of the population.
A UN Office on Drugs and Crime report on trafficking warns that refugees from Ukraine are at risk of including sexual exploitation, forced labour, illegal adoption and surrogacy, forced begging and forced criminality.
As they come over border crossings into Poland, refugees - including victims of rape - are greeted with posters and flyers carrying warnings about jail terms for breaking local abortion laws, images of miscarried foetuses, and a quote from Mother Theresa saying: "Abortion is the greatest threat to peace".
UNDP, which is assisting the Ukraine government in getting access to public services for IDPs, says in its 2022 report, Turning the tide on internal displacement, that earlier and increased support to development is an essential condition for emerging from crisis in a sustainable way.
"More efforts are needed to end the marginalization of internally displaced people, who must be able to exercise their full rights as citizens including through access to vital services such as health care, education, social protection and job opportunities" said Achim Steiner, UNDP Administrator.
Nearly one million Rohingya refugees languishing in refugee camps in Bangladesh after being driven out of Myanmar in waves since 2016 would surely agree.
Asif Saleh, executive director of BRAC, said to be the world's largest NGO and founded by Sir Fazle after the independence of Bangladesh in 1972, says work needs to "shift towards a development-like approach from a very short-term humanitarian crisis-focused approach". But the only solution for the Rohingya refugees is their sustainable and voluntary repatriation to Myanmar. As 2022 closes, that unfortunately looks highly unlikely as the military junta that seized power in 2021 fights ethnic armed organisations on multiple fronts.
There was one seismic milestone event that happened in late 2022 although no one is quite sure exactly where and when. The few people to witness it were not aware either - not that it prevented the UN from declaring it a special day. The birth of the 8 billionth person was celebrated on November 15. The world's population has doubled from 4 billion in 1974 and UN projections suggest we will be supporting about 9.7 billion people in 2050. Global population is forecast to peak at about 10.4 billion in the 2080s.
Inger Andersen, executive director of the UN environment programme, sent a message to the baby, and the rest of the world, as countries meet in Montreal for the COP15 biodiversity conference this month.
"We've just welcomed the 8 billionth member of the human race on this planet. That's a wonderful birth of a baby, of course. But we need to understand that the more people there are, the more we put the Earth under heavy pressure," she said.

(Farhana Haque Rahman is Senior Vice President of IPS Inter Press Service and Executive Director IPS Noram; she served as the elected Director General of IPS from 2015-2019. A journalist and communications expert, she is a former senior official of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and the International Fund for Agricultural Development).

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