Links Between War & Famine: From the Chevauchée to Yemen, S. Sudan, Ukraine, and Syria

 

“Armed conflicts lead to hunger and reduced food production and economic growth in developing and transition countries. Reciprocally, food and economic insecurity and natural resource scarcities–real and perceived–often precipitate violence.”

-Marc Cohen and Per Pinstrup-Andersen (1999)

 

Recent images coming out of war-torn Yemen are heartbreaking. After three years of fighting between Houthi rebels and a Saudi-led coalition (backed by the US, UK and France), an estimated eight million people are near starvation. The war has exacerbated the nutritional situation in what was already one of the poorest countries in the region, causing infrastructure to crumble and unemployment rates to skyrocket. A blockade of Yemen’s ports has also led to a rise in food prices and to a lack of medical supplies, leaving people dependent on insufficient amounts of food aid.

BBC

A malnourished infant in Yemen, with a low upper arm circumference (source: BBC).

 

This has been building for a while. Nearly two years ago, a BBC report cited statistics from the UN that 370,000 children in Yemen were starving. Even infants, who may be buffered from difficult economic conditions via breastfeeding, were not spared as many mothers were too malnourished to produce milk.

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How War Gets “Under the Skin”

Unbending rigor is the mate of death,
And wielding softness the company of life
Unbending soldiers get no victories;
The stiffest tree is readiest for the axe.
(Tao Te Ching: 76)

 

Early in life, our bodies are like unmolded clay, ready to be shaped by our experiences. For some of us, that matching process can create problems. If circumstances change, we could end up poorly adapted to our adult environment. A child born into harsh conditions, though, may have to take that risk in order to make it to adulthood at all.

The Hmong in French Guiana may be an example of this process. They are a fascinating population for many reasons, the most obvious being that they are there at all. A few dozen refugees from Laos first resettled in French Guiana in 1977, a few years after the Vietnam War, after they and the French government agreed that life in small, ethnically homogenous villages in a tropical environment was a better option than acculturating to the cities of Métropole France. The experiment paid off. Today, more than two thousand Hmong are farmers in the Amazonian jungle, producing most of the fruits and vegetables in the country. The result is a level of economic autonomy and cultural retention that is likely unique in the Southeast Asian refugee diaspora.

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Scenes from Hmong villages in French Guiana. (Clockwise from top left: fields of Cacao, young men going on a hunting trip in Javouhey, swidden agriculture of Cacao, a street lined with farmers’ trucks in Javouhey.

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Children in Conflict

“If a bomb is deliberately dropped on a house or a vehicle on the grounds that a “suspected terrorist” is inside (note the frequent use of the word suspected as evidence of the uncertainty surrounding targets), the resulting deaths of women and children may not be intentional. But neither are they accidental. The proper description is “inevitable.” 

-Howard Zinn, “War is not a solution for terrorism” The Boston Globe 2, 2006

Screen captures featuring headlines concerned with civilian victims of war.

 

 

UNICEF recently released a list of some of the most dangerous places for children to live. In various wars around the world, children have been killed, abducted, injured, raped, lost family members, and been forced into military service (“child soldiers”). In addition to the direct targeting of civilians, including children, war also creates indirect adversities including psychological stress, infections, and malnutrition. For example, in the ongoing conflict in Yemen, one million people have contracted the deadly diarrheal disease cholera, 600,000 of whom are children.

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No More Trouble

Killing the brother

Destroying the country

For nothing

For nothing

Prenatal “Shocks” and Birth Outcomes

Birth weight is often used as a rough gauge for the quality of the prenatal environment. A newborn who weighs 2500g or less (about 5.5 pounds) is considered to be “low birth weight” (LBW). At the individual level, weight alone is an imperfect measure because of confounders such as gestational length (it’s axiomatic that the less time spent in the womb, the less time there is to grow). However, at the population level, if average birth weight fluctuates, then it is an indication that something in the environment probably has changed.

Sometimes, stressful changes can be low-intensity and chronic; at other times, they can be abrupt and dramatic. Biologists, psychologists, and bioanthropologists might call these changes “stressors” or “insults.” Economists might use the term “shocks.” They’re both getting at the same idea: to what extent can harmful environmental factors affect growth and health outcomes? 

In the case of a natural disaster, the harm done can be substantial. Florencia Torche (2011) found that rates of LBW increased following the 2005 Tarapaca earthquake in northern Chile. Despite the magnitude of the earthquake (7.9 on the Richter scale), the amount of destruction was relatively limited: eleven people died, and 0.035% of the population had to temporarily relocate to shelters. This was attributed to the low population density of the region as well as Chilean preparedness and building codes to withstand earthquakes. Although the damage was not as severe as it could have been, Torche reasoned that the earthquake likely caused acute maternal stress, which in turn could affect prenatal development. 

Looking at over half a million births, Torche used maternal county of residence as an estimate of the earthquake’s intensity across different trimesters of exposure. She found that mothers who were lived in the most intensely affected regions during the first trimester were the most affected. The probability of LBW increased from 4.7% to 6.5%, while rates of pre-term births also increased from 5.2% to 8.0%. Later periods of gestation were not substantially affected, and for infants who were conceived after the earthquake, the probability of LBW returned to baseline.

Again, these outcomes seemed to result primarily from acute psychological stress stemming from the earthquake. Torche reasoned that – given the relatively low amount of damage to infrastructure – the increases in LBW and pre-term births were unlikely to have resulted from other factors such as malnutrition, infection, stress resulting from deprivation, strenuous workloads, or exposure to environmental toxins. In reality, it’s not possible to control for all of these variables entirely, but overall it seems plausible that maternal psychological stress played a substantial role in birth outcomes.

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The Long Reach of War: More UXO Casualties in Laos

“It was said that after the war (WW1) when the earth was restored, there was one-third metal and war materials, one-third real earth, and one-third human flesh.” source

“Wars are not paid for in war time. The bill comes later.”   – Ben Franklin

 

This week, a leftover bomb from the war in Laos detonated in Paek district, Xieng Khouang province. One child was killed, and twelve other people were injured (five adults and seven other children). It appears that this was a “bombie,” a tennis-ball sized cluster bomb dropped by the U.S.

Over 2 million tons of ordnance was dropped on Laos from 1964-1973. Many of these bombs failed to detonate on impact, leaving behind unexploded ordnance (UXO) that remains active to the present day. That means that this particular bombie remained dormant for at least 44 years. The villagers who were interviewed in the video below said they think the bomb could have been detonated by children playing jump-rope nearby.

That the tragedies of war can last for so long, and can be triggered by something as innocent as children jumping rope (who were born well after the war ended) only provides more factor to consider when deciding whether to engage in military conflict. It is yet another reason for caution.

And it’s not just Laos. Leftover UXO from World War 2 and even World War 1 still remain active in Europe and Egypt (and probably elsewhere). The Ben Franklin quote above (“the bill comes later”) referred to the paying of war debts, accrued by borrowing to pay for war efforts. But it also apply to the costs paid by civilians and soldiers alike, lasting for decades. 

 

 

Should Cambodia Pay War Debts to the United States?

The Sydney Morning Herald reported that the U.S. is seeking $500 million in repayment from Cambodia for a Vietnam War-era loan, primarily in the form of excess maize. According to the SMH:

The debt started out as a US$274 million loan mostly for food supplies to the then US-backed Lon Nol government but has almost doubled over the years as Cambodia refused to enter into a re-payment program.

As the article also pointed out, many people across the political spectrum are outraged by the request, given the role the U.S. played in bombing Cambodia. According to Yale historian Ben Kiernan, from 1965-73 U.S. planes dropped nearly 2.8 million tons of bombs over the eastern part of the country. This was part of a larger war meant to deny communist troops and supplies from North Vietnam from reaching the South via Laos and Cambodia.

Although casualty estimates from war are notoriously difficult, U.S. bombing was estimated to have killed 50,000 to perhaps hundreds of thousands of Cambodians, many of them civilians. Furthermore, historians such as Kiernan have argued that without the bombing, the Khmer Rouge might not have grown as much as it did, with people radicalized against U.S. brutality and into the arms of the K.R. Their rise to power, of course, led to more atrocities and genocide only a few years later. 

Given all of that, it seems preposterous, or at least tone-deaf, for the U.S. to request repayment. And it’s not just Cambodians who think so. Also noted in the SMH article was a quote from James Pringle, a former Reuters bureau chief in Ho Chi Minh City, who was near Cambodia during the war: 

“Cambodia does not owe a brass farthing to the US for help in destroying its people, its wild animals, its rice fields and forest cover.”

 

U.S. bombing of Cambodia from 1965-1973 (by Taylor Owen and Ben Kiernan). Source.

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