Rethinking food crisis responses in South Asia

Investment should be stepped up in customized climate-resilient agriculture for long-run sustainability and ensuring the smallholders' access to modern technologies and inputs.

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India is now the most populous country in the world. South Asia comprises a quarter of humanity and is the most densely populated region. No other area faces constraints on the resources (land, water, energy) as much as South Asia. As the world grapples with a cascade of crises–Covid-19 pandemic, natural calamities aggravated with climate change and other man-made problems like civil unrest and political instability–food and fertilizers crisis in South Asia has been exacerbated.  This is particularly damaging for a region with per capita income less than $2200 (higher than only sub-Saharan Africa, population share of 17 percent). Some South Asian countries additionally faced a series of economic crises (debt and balance of payment problems) exacerbating the limited fiscal space for coping and recovery. Because of multiple crises, relative food price increases in Pakistan and Sri Lanka were 66 percent  and 36 percent respectively in September 2022.

Also, political conflicts and humanitarian crises have beset the region, important for food security and wellbeing of the population. The Rohingya crisis specifically affected Bangladesh with a huge influx of refugees and political conflicts in Sri Lanka impinged on governance that aggravated food crises.

South Asia is most climate vulnerable where one country Nepal has eight out of the 14 highest mountain peaks in the world and almost 80 percent of rainfall comes from four months of monsoon rains. With vast coastlines, high dependence on agriculture, more than half of all South Asians–750 million people–were affected by one or more climate-related disasters in the last two decades as per a World Bank report. 

In responding to climate crises where most South Asian countries have contributed little to climate change but face the brunt of climate shock disproportionately, there are natural demands for climate justice.

What the report shows

The 2023 Global Food Policy Report (GFPR) of International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) highlights the impacts of multiple crises, their unequal impacts by income, gender and other  differentiators. GFPR pitches for a positive note with learning from the spate of crises and drawing from examples of food system resilience encompassing adoption, mitigation and coping strategies. Innovations relating to early warning systems (EWS), agri-food value chain, social protection as well as adequate resourcing of crisis response emerge as key recommendations for food crisis response.

In responding to crises and minimizing their impacts, South Asian countries are learning from the past and can provide lessons for each country, region and the global south. The authors in GFPR show that in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean, the 2005 Enactment of Disaster Management Act aimed to minimize future losses by integrating disaster management at all levels, national, state, and district-level. In addition, an Early Warning System For Tsunamis in the Indian Ocean was established in 2007. The regional partnership like BIMSTEC on which IFPRI has research and policy engagement has also focused on mainstreaming early warning systems–one of the core recommendations in GFPR 2023.

In the Covid-19 shock, management of lockdowns offers important lessons from South Asia. How Bangladesh introduced a national holiday prior to full lockdown or how the vaccination was managed for the exceptionally large population offer important learnings. Also in response to Covid-19, countries used digital and institutional innovations for near universalization of social protection programs and brought in portability and divisibility in the system (Bangladesh and India, among others, introduced the system of One Nation One Ration Card). The region has also demonstrated use of digitization in improving the efficacy of the systems, digital cross border transactions between India Nepal among others, for example.

Way forward

In the post-crisis world, even though South Asian countries have shown food system resilience to varying degrees, learning from the crises beckons a more holistic and long term approach as espoused in GFPR 2023. 

There is a need for a formalized and resourced comprehensive EWS to alert policymakers and humanitarian agencies about different shocks including how they reinforce each other and compound the effects. As sources and effects of shocks transcend borders, an internationally shared EWS is desirable. EWS should use knowledge and expertise across various subject matters.

In the crisis-affected world, there is a need for greater trade and market integration. Historically and even currently utilization of trade and market links among South Asian countries is significantly below potential. Trade outcomes need to improve and gear towards dealing with shocks. Bangladesh offers a great example to emulate. Through trade liberalization and involving the private sector, Bangladesh facing the so-called 1998 flood of the century had no hunger deaths.

Institutional and technological innovations for social safety nets (SSN) for the vulnerable to respond quickly to shocks with minimum exclusion errors is the need of the hour. With a multitude of shocks SSN should be pliable. This would require application of new technology and institutions that preserve the incentives for delivering on common goods.

With evidence for gender differentiated effects of shocks as well as in accessing systems for recovery in South Asia, the design of programs and policies should incorporate checks and balances for inclusion. In the specific context of South Asia other vulnerabilities based on social identity and remoteness should be taken into account.

Likewise, investment should be stepped up in customized climate-resilient agriculture for long-run sustainability and ensuring the smallholders’ access to modern technologies and inputs.

Devesh Roy is a senior research fellow, Shahidur Rashid is the director for South Asia and Anjani Kumar is a senior research fellow at IFPRI. Views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the authors.