Set aside the immense suffering experienced by the Ukrainian people, with millions fleeing the country, millions of others bearing the brunt of displacement, and thousands of people dead.
Disregard the trillions spent on armaments and killing machines, funds that could have been used for humanitarian issues. More importantly, keep your fingers crossed that a nuclear war does not take place. Now consider the far-reaching economic impacts of the Ukraine war on the planet.
The war in Ukraine unfolded even before the world had fully recovered from the reverberations of the Covid-19 pandemic. It has been seven months since the fighting erupted, and there is no sign of it abating. In the meantime, the world’s dependence on Russian energy and Ukrainian grain and food oil has turned the war into a humanitarian crisis with overwhelming consequences.
Unfortunately, these consequences are not limited to Ukraine but pose perils across the globe. The fallout is far and wide: disrupted supply chains, the scarcity or unavailability of goods, surging fuel prices, increasing freight costs for all modes of transportation, and, even more traumatic, food shortages, all causing soaring inflation and slowing economic growth across the board.
Inflation has a catastrophic toll on individuals as it erodes the value of their savings and incomes. In the US, inflation has reached its highest level for more than 40 years, but Europe has been hit even harder. The Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) warns of “slowing growth as monetary policy tightens and the possibility of recessions in several European economies.”
The average European inflation rate has climbed to a 25-year high, reaching 9.1 per cent in August and 10 per cent in September. As energy prices surge and natural gas quadruples in price, just about everything is skyrocketing.
The EU Observer online newspaper says that “countries most affected by high inflation are Estonia (23.2 per cent), Latvia (21.3 per cent) and Lithuania (20.9 per cent).” The UK’s inflation rate has surged to a 40-year-high of 10.1 per cent, as the British pound fell to an all-time low. Germany may be on the brink of recession as inflation devastates Europe’s largest economy. Russia is facing a 15 per cent inflation rate.
Russia has halted gas deliveries to Europe indefinitely, causing fuel prices to spike in Europe and elsewhere. As a result of defects in the Nord Stream Pipeline that carries Russian gas under the Baltic Sea to Europe and of leakages that were discovered more recently in it, Europe will be facing a brutally harsh winter.
The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBS) has commented that “lights out, heaters off: Europeans prepare for a winter energy crisis… Businesses are set to shut down or take drastic measures to cut energy use.” Surging energy costs will force families in Europe to cut spending to ensure they can heat their homes and buy food this winter.
If affluent European countries are suffering, imagine what the under-developed countries are facing. The ripple effects of the war are threatening the supply of food resources like wheat and oil and raising the potential for a global famine.
Ukraine, a major exporter of grain, has long been considered the breadbasket of Europe and the world. In 2021, Ukrainian grain fed 400 million people. Ukraine and Russia together account for about a third of the world’s wheat and a quarter of its barley production, essential staples for many. Ukraine is also the world’s leading exporter of sunflower oil and vegetable oils in general, but the war has caused a 23 per cent increase in vegetable oil prices.
Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus export 40 per cent of the world’s potash, which is used in fertilisers. The war and the sanctions on Russia have exacerbated an existing fertiliser shortage and driven farmers to reduce fertiliser use and, hence, reduce crop yields. This has been the case not only in Ukraine but also around the world, wreaking havoc with harvests everywhere.
When Ukraine resumed its grain exports, a sigh of relief across the world followed. It is to be hoped that the flow of grain to the underprivileged countries will continue and not be disrupted again so as to ease the hunger crisis. However, the exports are not enough, for up to 30 per cent of agricultural areas in Ukraine will either not be planted or will not be harvested. While the war remains in full swing, Ukraine may be unable to export much of its grain to those that need it the most.
The grain-importing countries have been hit hard, worsening hunger issues in some of the world’s most at-risk regions. The International Rescue Committee, a NGO, says that “blockades of Ukrainian grain exports have worsened hunger in some of the world’s most vulnerable regions. In East Africa, for instance, a perfect storm of continued drought, the blockade, and the economic fallout from the war is causing mass starvation. Without urgent international funding, three million people in the region could lose their lives.”
The number of those on the verge of starvation in Somalia, Ethiopia, and Kenya is staggering, and the Sahel Region in North Africa has around 18 million people experiencing severe hunger.
Egypt, too, has been hit hard by the Ukraine war. The world’s largest importer of wheat, it is buying the grain at almost double the price of 2021. The same goes for petrol. Tourism, a key source of foreign currency, has also suffered since Russians and Ukrainians were among the top visitors to Egypt.
In all fairness, the whole world is facing the same dilemma, for we are all in this together. It is unknown how long this war will last. In the meantime, its profound repercussions have left the world in shambles. Unfortunately, the suffering is largely falling on deaf ears, and the international community is not doing enough to resolve the conflict.
A peaceful settlement would bring this crisis and the agony of millions to an end. It would also preserve human life and the dignity of millions.
* The writer is former professor of communication based in Vancouver, Canada.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 20 October, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.