Forty percent of the world’s hungry people lived in South Asia even before the food price crisis of 2008. Hunger stalks the entire region, from the mountain slopes of Nepal to the arid plains of southern Afghanistan. Although large-scale famines have largely been kept at bay, millions of poor people are unable to afford two square meals a day.
Productivity from the resource-intensive Green Revolution agriculture has reached a plateau. Incessant diversion of fertile land for non-farm activities, depletion of ground-water tables and declining budgetary support have pushed South Asian agriculture to the brink.
Climate change threatens to exacerbate these resource constraints in a region where 60 percent of farming is rain-fed. Even the most optimistic of projections indicate that average crop yields could plummet and the frequency and severity of disasters increase multi-fold. The prognosis for regional food security is dire.
There are reasons for optimism, however. The combination of the food, finance, and agriculture crises has brought to public attention the magnitude of the hidden iceberg of hunger. Media channels, parliamentary debates, and even regional films are finally paying heed to the scale of undernourishment which engulfs the region.
And with the recent establishment of democracy in Afghanistan and Nepal and the end of prolonged conflict in Sri Lanka, unprecedented opportunities exist to initiate structural changes. South Asian leaders need to rise to this challenge with vision and concrete initiatives before the impact of climate change further weakens the fragility of South Asian food and agrarian systems.
Oxfam believes that at the very least, governments across South Asia need to urgently prioritize the following steps
- Protect the universal right to food: Reduce vulnerability by creating a minimum social protection floor to prevent people from falling into hunger.
- Support smallholder farmers: Build a new agricultural future by prioritising the needs of smallholder food producers ― where the major gains in productivity, sustainability, poverty eradication and resilience can be achieved.
- Adapt to and mitigate climate change: Work towards a new ecological future by mobilising investments and shifting behaviours to achieve equitable distribution of scarce resources.
- Extend regional cooperation: Forge a new era of regional co-operation in agriculture and food security.