UN, Liberia assessing food security impact of Ebola outbreak, planning response

A WFP distribution centre in the heavily-populated West Point neighbourhood of Monrovia in Liberia, which was quarantined in response to the Ebola outbreak.
WFP/Rein Skullerud
A WFP distribution centre in the heavily-populated West Point neighbourhood of Monrovia in Liberia, which was quarantined in response to the Ebola outbreak.

UN, Liberia assessing food security impact of Ebola outbreak, planning response

The Liberian Government, along with key United Nations agencies, is set to carry out a rapid field assessment on food security and livelihoods in the wake of the Ebola outbreak, as the top UN envoy on curbing the spread of the virus in West Africa arrived today in the Liberian capital, Monrovia.

The assessment, performed by the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) and the UN World Food Programme (WFP), is part of efforts to mitigate food insecurity in communities in 15 counties in the country.

“The results of this rapid assessment will help us develop an understanding of the critical needs of the population in order to design immediate actions to meet the population’s most urgent needs,” said Jesse Yuan, who is a consultant with the FAO office in Liberia, in the National Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) section.

The two-week assessment will include focus group discussions and questionnaires with farmers, forest users, traders as well as community leaders, elders and women and youth groups, according to information from the UN agencies.

The Ebola virus is negatively affecting food security, commerce and agriculture in the country. Depending on its impacts, Liberia’s fiscal budget for 2014 could experience a shortfall of over $115 million, according to Finance Minister Amara Konneh.

Last month, the UN agencies and the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) released a report on the state of food insecurity in the world. It reported that more than 800 million people – or one in every nine on the planet – suffer from hunger, but that the Millennium Development Goal of halving the proportion of undernourished people by 2015 is still within reach.

Speaking at the launch, WFP Executive Director Ertharin Cousin warned that Ebola has endangered harvest and sent food prices soaring throughout West Africa, rapidly creating a “major food crisis” in the region.

The countries where the virus has most notably taken hold – Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone – were considered net cereal importers even before the outbreak, and the border closures and quarantines which resulted have contributed to food shortages and labor shortages, according to FAO.

FAO Liberia’s recent field visit to hard-hit communities in Lofa County, once considered the country’s “bread basket”, showed that in those specific areas, Ebola has affected income, livelihoods and agriculture.

Savings consolidated over several years have been completely depleted due to the disease’s destruction of income-generating opportunities. Without income, women in Lofa County have not been able to repay their loans for the past two months, the agency notes.

As emphasized by FAO interim Representative in Liberia, Alexis Bonte, this directly impacts food security and the local economy, as these savings and loans were necessary for micro trade, food procurement, agricultural input purchases, agro processing and small food businesses.”

“The joint FAO-WFP assessment represents an important opportunity to engage in evidence-based planning and response to reduce the impact of the Ebola on the people”, said WFP Liberia’s Emergency Coordinator, Christophe Boutonnier.

In recent days, the UN Mission for Ebola Emergency Response (UNMEER) is establishing its headquarters in Accra, Ghana, to lead the world body’s efforts in stopping the outbreak, treating the infected, ensuring essential services, preserving stability and preventing further outbreaks.

Anthony Banbury, the Secretary-General’s Special Representative and head of UNMEER, arrived with a team in the Liberian capital, Monrovia earlier today and immediately met with the UN Country Team to get an overview from them about the situation the ground.

Telling UN Radio the meeting was “very helpful and positive”, he praised the Country team for “doing fantastic work on the ground combatting Ebola for many months.” Mr. Banbury said he then met with the Government at the Emergency Operations Centre to hear about the national Ebola response plan.

Mr. Banbury and Karin Landgren, the head of the UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL) met with President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who prioritized speed, efficiency and national ownership, as regarded the response to the outbreak. “That matches perfectly with UNMEER priorities” said Mr. Banbury.

“UNMEER is here on a two-day learning visit to understand as best we can the needs of the international actors who are part of the response to Ebola. Some of us will stay behind…but when we leave after two days, we are committed to having a good understanding of the most urgent needs, and where UNMEER can help, he said adding: “Those will be our marching orders: what the needs are here and what the gaps are in the response to Ebola and we will try to fill those gaps as bet as possible.

According to a UN spokesperson, Ms. Landgren reiterated during a press conference marking the 11th anniversary of UNMIL, that the Mission will remain in Liberia and support the country through the crisis, lending its resources to fight the Ebola outbreak.

She said that last week, a Liberian staff member passed away from probable Ebola. She stressed it was a sad reminder of the ever-present risk, and that the Mission has actively taken steps since March to educate all personnel and help them protect themselves against the disease.

Meanwhile, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon paid a visit to the UN World Health Organization (WHO) and its Ebola Outbreak Response Operations team in Geneva to express his appreciation for the work done since March in response to the outbreak in West Africa.