When disaster strikes, the World Food Programme (WFP) is at the forefront, not just providing food, but good nutrition. 

The nature of humanitarian crises is rapidly changing. More people are in need of support and for longer periods. Malnutrition is a common consequence of emergencies, disproportionately impacting women and young children. Those affected often have poor nutritional status prior to the crisis, which is then worsened as disaster strips communities of their infrastructure, livelihoods and social structures.

Malnutrition in emergencies: immediate and far-reaching consequences

Whether refugees are fleeing war, floods are washing away homes or drought is destroying farmland, hunger is often the first emergency. When populations cannot access adequate nutritious food for prolonged periods, malnutrition results and lives are lost.

The repercussions of malnutrition on mortality and health are immediate, particularly among the most vulnerable: Malnutrition is responsible for 45 percent of overall childhood mortality, and poor nutrition can lead to poor pregnancy outcomes including maternal mortality. Malnutrition can also worsen the health outcomes of people living with HIV, who are particularly vulnerable in emergencies when their normal access to medication, healthcare and essential nutrition is interrupted. 

In the long term, poor nutrition – even that resulting from temporary emergency situations – can cause irreversible damage to a child’s growth and development. This can mean that an entire generation of young children are not able to reach their potential, with far reaching consequences for communities and long term national development.

Our work

WFP is among the first to respond in emergencies, be it natural disaster or conflict. We bring our nutrition expertise to support the most vulnerable during times of crises, and work with governments and communities to protect nutritional gains in case another upheaval comes. 

WFP’s primary role for nutrition in emergencies is to ensure that those affected by a crisis receive adequate nutrients – good nutrition – not just sufficient food. Based on the situation at hand, the nutrition response might include either the treatment and/or prevention of malnutrition. Young children, pregnant and breastfeeding mothers, and others at risk of malnutrition are the key target groups for WFP’s nutrition interventions in emergencies. 

Preventing and treating malnutrition

WFP’s nutrition programming in emergencies focuses on preventing malnutrition in the most vulnerable members of the household, and treating MAM when it does occur. 

Prevention:

WFP’s programmes to prevent malnutrition in emergencies focus on the 1,000-day period from conception to a child’s second birthday, the critical window of opportunity when poor nutrition can have long-term consequences on a child’s life. Supplementary feeding programmes provide targeted food support to all individuals in specific groups at particular risk of malnutrition. 

Treatment:

WFP provides specialized nutritious food and other essential services to individuals with moderate acute malnutrition. The objective is to rehabilitate people suffering from acute malnutrition and prevent their condition from deteriorating further. 

Ensuring a comprehensive response 

Given the multiple causes of malnutrition, WFP takes a comprehensive approach to the immediate and underlying causes of malnutrition in emergencies. 

WFP works with UNICEF and other partners collaboratively through the Nutrition Cluster to ensure that treatment and prevention programs are implemented in a cohesive manner with complementary nutrition interventions such as treatment of severe acute malnutrition and promotion of infant and young child feeding practices. 

WFP also advocates with partners for the provision of hygiene, sanitation and health services  for crisis-affected people, and promotes food security at the household level by providing food assistance to families through in-kind or cash based transfers.

Being prepared 

Good preparedness is critical to limiting and mitigating the consequences of any future disaster while strengthening the resilience of vulnerable groups: Good nutrition prior to an emergency enables better resilience and coping. WFP works with partners and governments to put nutrition programmes in place before a crisis hits. In countries with a high risk of shocks, we work to integrate nutrition considerations into systems and tools for emergency preparedness.