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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


May-June 2018

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Accelerating Progress Toward the Zero Hunger Goal in Cross-Boundary Climate Change Hotspots

Nutrition and food security constitute a critical development challenge, and a sine qua non condition for human well-being and macroeconomic growth. According to the most recent estimates, 2 billion people suffer from micronutrient malnutrition, 155 million children under the age of 5 years are stunted, and 41 million are overweight.1 Despite considerable progress toward the hunger-related target 1.C under Millennium Development Goal 1, this target was not reached, with Sub-Saharan Africa, the Caribbean, Southern Asia, and Oceania all making insufficient progress.2 Ending poverty and hunger is topmost on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 2 is entitled, “End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture.” It has eight targets that must be achieved in the 2020–2030 time horizon, including target 2.1: “By 2030, end hunger and ensure access by all people, in particular the poor and people in vulnerable situations, including infants, to safe, nutritious and sufficient food all year round.”3

Improving agriculture in Darchula district, Nepal.

The food security and nutrition challenges are particularly critical in regions that are prone to multiple vulnerabilities and often cut across national boundaries, such as climate change hotspots.4 These are areas characterized by both a “strong climate signal” and concentration of vulnerable populations5 and can be defined as “geographic regions of compound risk that might be regarded as particularly susceptible to a changing climate.”6 Here we provide specific approaches that will help address nutrition and food insecurity challenges in these regions, and thus contribute significantly to accelerating the rate of progress toward the Zero Hunger Goal in the 2030 Agenda. In doing so, we respond directly to the concerns raised in the most recent SDG progress report,7 which warned that the current SDG rate of progress was too slow.

The four specific and complementary approaches that we suggest here are (1) applying the concept of safe and just operating spaces in climate change hotspot social–ecological systems; (2) capitalizing on cross-boundary and cross-sectoral interdependencies; (3) tapping the potential of rising food and nutrition security opportunities in climate change hotspots; and (4) setting up robust regional-scale monitoring frameworks for greater accountability (Figure 1). While these proposals are by no means a complete remedy to developmental problems in climate change hotspots, they complement existing approaches to eradicating malnutrition and hunger. We claim that these strategies will contribute to fulfilling both global nutrition and food security relevant goals—such as SDG 2, the World Health Assembly (WHA) 2025 nutrition targets, and relevant priorities under at the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015–2030 (Sendai Framework)—and regional, climate change hotspot-relevant targets included in the regional development plans and programs. In order to work, these approaches would need to be tailored to specific geographic and socioeconomic settings and ideally fit within the contextualized theory of change developed for each climate change hotspot.

Figure 1. Conceptual framework for accelerating progress toward the Zero Hunger Goal in cross-boundary climate change hotspots.

Applying the Concept of Safe and Just Operating Spaces in Regional Climate Change Hotspot Social–Ecological Systems

The concept of safe and just operating spaces has delineated boundaries for ecological processes and thresholds for social well-being at a global scale.8 The operationalization of the safe and just operating spaces concept therefore provides a basis for exploring the linkages between social and ecological systems and allows identification of minimum thresholds for social systems—and maximum thresholds for ecological systems. For example, the safe and just operating spaces concept can be applied to understand how rapid resource exploitation, such as shrimp farming or agricultural intensification, is associated with food and nutrition security, which in turn may increase environmental degradation in climate change hotspots—with possible feedbacks on the social system and a reduction of resilience in both systems. The resulting evidence can be used during the design of the transboundary cooperation and development plans for climate change hotspots, such as the Sea-Red river delta master plan.9 In semi-arid regions, for example in the Sahel, the safe and just operating spaces concept can be applied to investigate the boundaries and thresholds of the socio-economic systems, which are home to often marginalized pastoral and transhumant communities.

Fisherman holding a fishing net on the southwest coast of Bangladesh.

Furthermore, the safe and just operating spaces concept can serve as a powerful tool to quantify and compare regional differences. Dearing et al. in 2014 showed the usefulness of this concept in mapping environmental degradation boundaries in Shucheng county in eastern China, which revealed unsustainable use of ecosystem services.10 Operationalizing the safe and just operating spaces would also be useful in the context of the water resource management conflicts in the Ganges Brahmaputra hotspot between Bangladesh and India. The safe and just operating spaces concept can also serve as a basis for exploring transformation pathways within which the Zero Hunger Goal can be achieved, and that could be jeopardized by moving beyond the safe and just operating spaces. It is particularly important in the climate change hotspots across the world to investigate and influence the pathways and the drivers that may lead the social–ecological systems to move out of a safe and just operating space, beyond which there is a high risk of hunger and food insecurity.11

Sandwip, an island on the eastern coast of Bangladesh. Climate change and associated sea level rise is expected to aggravate coastal erosion, thereby causing landlessness and impacting local livelihoods.

Capitalizing on Cross-Boundary and Cross-Sectoral Interdependencies

While by definition climate change hotspots suffer from multiple stressors and vulnerabilities, their cross-boundary nature offers scope for innovative approaches. To accelerate the progress toward SDG 2 in climate change hotspots, “borders should be considered as meeting points to share knowledge and experiences, rather than divisions.”12 Supporting these regions in scaling up the rate of progress toward the Zero Hunger Goal will require, among other measures, setting up innovative agricultural insurance schemes and other social security measures, beyond the provision of project-based cash transfers. Such schemes would need to allow a response to climate and climate-related market shocks and be operational at the regional level. In addition, regional organizations such as the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) and West African Economic and Monetary Union (UEMOA) will need to develop coherent strategies that account for the interests of producers as well as populations made vulnerable by price volatility. This should be done by combining structural policy measures and cyclical policy measures aimed at stabilizing prices and reducing the effects of price volatility within a comprehensive food and nutrition security policy framework across the West African semi-arid regions.

In the transboundary Hindu-Kush Himalayan region, agricultural systems are highly sensitive to climate change and mountain farmers experience prolonged droughts and flooding, which affect food security.15 In order to mitigate the impacts of climate and environmental change, farmers have adopted a variety of locally developed techniques, one of which is to manage their cardamom terraces using natural fertilizer. However, even where communities benefit directly from climate funds, they are often just passive beneficiaries instead of actively participating in development initiatives. Thus, in addition to the existing national and regional policies, such as National Adaptation Plan of Action and Climate Resilient Planning Framework, local authorities and populations will need to set up well-structured transboundary multi-stakeholder platforms, which would allow effective and cross- sectoral implementation of efforts as well as knowledge sharing.

NGOs and local authorities engaging on the strategies to reduce food insecurity in the municipality of Tacharane, Mali.

Accelerating progress toward the Zero Hunger Goal across climate change hotspots should not only be a priority for developing countries. For the European Union (EU), for example, food insecurity should not only be seen as a possible threat caused by climate change, but it should also serve as an opportunity to develop policies that can enhance innovation and reformulate health, trade, and social cohesion. This will require strong coordination both at the EU level and with the countries, which are part of the European Neighbourhood Policy. Some examples of policies that go in this direction include the collective approach to the agri-environment-climate measure, a measure under pillar 2 of the Common Agriculture Policy of the EU.6 Under this instrument, farmers across regions are encouraged to work together to deliver joint ecosystem services at a larger scale.

Importantly, as nutrition is a multi-sectoral issue, context-specific cross-boundary measures will need to be set up as part of the relevant policy and strategy documents, such as multisector nutrition and food security plans. Further, interlinkages between different SDGs, including between the Zero Hunger Goal (SDG 2) and the goals addressing climate change (SDG 13) or coastal and marine resources (SDG 14), should be taken into consideration, as progress toward these goals will also contribute to reducing hunger and food and nutrition insecurity.14

Cultivation of crops in high-altitude Kailash Sacred Landscape in Tibetan Plateau, China.

Government agencies providing water to vulnerable communities in the north of Mali.

Tapping the Potential of Rising Food and Nutrition Security Opportunities in Climate Change Hotspots

Despite challenges in climate change hotspots, opportunities are also rising that may be tapped to achieve sustainable food and nutrition security. For example, mountain ecosystems in the Hindu-Kush Himalayan region are rich in water sources, and are highly suitable for cultivation of traditional food crops, also known as “neglected and underutilized species” (e.g., barley, sorghum, millets, buckwheat, pulses, and beans). These crops are rich in micronutrients, and are more resilient to climatic stresses.16 In view of their higher benefits in terms of nutrition, climate change resilience, and biodiversity, these crops were recently renamed “Future Smart Foods”.17 Native livestock and rangelands also offer an opportunity in the Hindu-Kush Himalayan region, particularly in the high mountains (>2000 m asl). In the Tibetan Plateau of China, for example, a support mechanism for the yak including value chain development has played a very important role in local people's food security and livelihoods.

Yak heard in high-altitude Kailash Sacred Landscape in Tibet, China.

The Hindu-Kush Himalayan region also has a potential for growing vegetables, fruits, nuts, tea, and non-timber forest products (e.g. honey and medicinal plants). These sources have shown a rise in production and increased contribution to food security over time despite climatic challenges.11 Similarly, area-specific opportunities for tapping the potential of rising food and nutrition security options, including where relevant indigenous and cash crops, should be explored in climate change hotspots across other regions.

Setting Up Robust Climate Change Hotspot SDG Monitoring Frameworks for Greater Accountability

As the UN Secretary-General's synthesis report noted, there exist four levels of monitoring for the SDGs: national, regional, global, and thematic.18 While national reporting will be the most significant level of reporting and will rely heavily on the work of national statistical offices, complementary regional-level monitoring frameworks and indicators should be generated for socioeconomic systems, such as the climate change hotspots. As stipulated in the Sendai Framework, monitoring should involve developing and sharing of risk modelling, assessment, and mapping tools and providing comprehensive surveys on multi-hazard risks.19 An example of good practice to note in the Bengal delta is the Food Security and Nutritional Surveillance Project. As part of this project, for the first time in Bangladesh, seasonal surveys of food security generated a large amount of data that aided policy formulation with respect to nutrition and food security in Bangladesh.

Offshore fisherman selling fish to retailers in Sandwip, Bangladesh. Expected reduction of marine fish production will have serious implications for nutrition, food security, and coastal livelihoods.

In November 2017, Nepal, with the support of the United Nations World Food Programme and the SERVIR Hindu Kush Himalaya Initiative of the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), launched a new Online Food Security Information System to map and visualize patterns of food security, poverty, and malnutrition in the country. Such initiatives should be expanded to neighboring countries in the Hindu-Kush Himalayan region and applied in other climate change hotspots. Regional Online Food Security Information Systems would allow regular monitoring on the progress of important indicators within and across countries. Only with sufficient disaggregated data, and effective monitoring systems and tools at the climate change hotspot level, will we be able to ensure that progress toward the Zero Hunger Goal is on track.


Sylvia Szabo

Fabrice Renaud

Abid Hussain

Piotr Matczak

Devendra Raj Singh

Barbara Neumann

Zoe Matthews


1. Development Initiatives, Global Nutrition Report 2017: Nourishing the SDGs (Bristol, UK: Development Initiatives, 2017).

2. United Nations, The Millennium Development Goals Report 2015, (accessed 27 December 2017).

3. United Nations, Resolution adopted by the General Assembly on 25 September 2015, (accessed 20 October 2017).

4. S. Szabo, F. Renaud, S. Hossain, Z. Sebesvari, Z. Matthews, E. Foufoula-Georgiou, and R. J. Nicholls, “New Opportunities for Tropical Delta Regions Offered by the Proposed Sustainable Development Goals,” Environment: Science and Policy for Sustainable Development, 57, no. 4 (2015): 16–23. S. Szabo, R. J. Nicholls, B. Neumann, F. Renaud, Z. Matthews, Z. Sebesvari, A. AghaKouchak, R. Bales, C. Ruktanonchai, J. Kloos, E. Foufoula-Georgiou, P. Wester, M. New, J. Rhyner, and C. Hutton, “Making SDGs Work for Climate Change Hotspots,” Environment: Science and Policy for Sustainable Development 58, no. 6 (2016): 24–33.

5. K. de Souza, E. Kituyi, B. Harvey, M. Leone, K. S. Murali, and J. D. Ford, “Vulnerability to Climate Change in Three Hot Spots in Africa and Asia: Key Issues for Policy-Relevant Adaptation and Resilience-Building Research,” Regional Environmental Change 15, no. 5 (2015): 747–53.

6. European Environmental Agency (EEA), Climate Change, Impacts and Vulnerability in Europe 2016. An Indicator-Based Report, (accessed 20 October 2017).

7. United Nations, The Sustainable Development Goals Report 2017, (accessed 20 November 2017).

8. K. A. Raworth, Safe and Just Space for Humanity: Can We Live Within the Doughnut?, Oxfam Discussion Paper (Oxford, UK, 2012).

9. L. Trinh, Vietnam—Sea-Red River Delta Master Plan, (accessed 20 October 2017).

10. J. A. Dearing, R. Wang, K. Zhang, J. G. Dyke, H. Haberl, M. S. Hossain, P. G. Langdon, T. M. Lenton, K. Raworth, S. Brown, J. Carstensen, M. J. Cole, S. E. Cornell, T. P. Dawson, C. P. Doncaster, F. Eigenbrod, M. Flörken, E. Jeffers, A. S. Mackay, B. Nykvist, and G. M. Poppy, “Safe and Just Operating Spaces for Regional Social–Ecological System,” Global Environmental Change 28 (2014): 227–38. doi:10.1016/j.gloenvcha.2014.06.012.

11. M. S. Hossain, J. A. Dearing, F. Eigenbrod, and F. A. Johnson, “Operationalizing Safe Operating Space for Regional Social–Ecological Systems,” Science of the Total Environment 584–585 (2015): 673–82.

12. A. Hussain, N. K. Agrawal, and I. Leikanger, “Action for Adaptation: Bringing Climate Change Science to Policy Makers—A Synthesis Report of a Conference Held in Islamabad on 23–25 July 2015,” Food Security 8, no. 1 (2016): 285–89.

13. L. Mollier, F. Seyler, J-L. Chotte, and C. Ringler, “SDG2 End Hunger, Achieve Food Security and Improved Nutrition and Promote Sustainable Agriculture,” in D. J. Griggs, M. Nilsson, A-S. Stevance, and D. McCollum, eds., A Guide to SDG Interactions: From Science to Implementation (Paris, France: International Council for Science [ICSU], 2017), 33–79.

14. D. J. Griggs, M. Nilsson, A-S. Stevance, and D. McCollum, eds., A Guide to SDG Interactions: From Science to Implementation (Paris, France: International Council for Science [ICSU], 2017).

15. A. Hussain, R. Golam, B. Mahapatra, and S. Tulandhar, “Household Food Security in the Face of Climate Change in the Hindu-Kush Himalayan Region,” Food Security 8 (2016): 921–37.

16. L. Adhikari, A. Hussain, and G. Rasul, “Tapping the Potential of Neglected and Underutilized Food Crops for Sustainable Nutrition Security in the Mountains of Pakistan and Nepal,” Sustainability 9, no. 2 (2017): 291.

17. Food and Agriculture Organization, Future Smart Food: Unlocking Hidden Treasures in Asia and the Pacific. RI-Zero Hunger- Policy Brief-Agricultural Diversification for a Healthy Diet (Bangkok, Thailand: FAO Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific, 2017).

18. United Nations, The Road to Dignity by 2030: Ending Poverty, Transforming All Lives and Protecting the Planet Synthesis Report of the Secretary-General on the Post-2015 Agenda, (accessed 20 October 2017).

19. United Nations, Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction 2015–2030, (accessed 20 October 2017).


Sylvia Szabo is an assistant professor in the Department of Development and Sustainability at the Asian Institute of Technology. Her areas of expertise include nutrition and food security and human–environment interactions in climate change hotspots. Dr. Szabo is a graduate of the University of Southampton, the London School of Economics, and Sorbonne University.

Md. Sarwar Hossain is a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute of Geography, University of Bern, Switzerland. His research aims to define the limits of sustainability by understanding the complex dynamics between social and ecological systems. He holds a PhD in geography and environment from the University of Southampton and MSc in environmental sciences from Wageningen University.

Fabrice Renaud is a professor of environmental risk and community resilience at the University of Glasgow, School of Interdisciplinary Studies, Dumfries Campus, United Kingdom. Prof. Renaud's international research focuses on the environmental component of vulnerability, risk, and resilience of social–ecological systems exposed to environmental hazards.

Djaffra Traore is an advocacy manager with Action against Hunger in Mali, where his responsibilities include designing policy and advocacy strategies to reduce hunger and accelerate the progress toward SDG 2 in Mali and the wider West Africa region. He is also a co-founder of the Malian parliamentary network on nutrition and food security. He has a master's degree in international law from the University of Bamako.

Abid Hussain is a food security economist at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), Nepal. Dr. Hussain holds a PhD in regional and rural development planning from the Asian Institute of Technology, Thailand.

Piotr Matczak works in the Faculty of Social Sciences, Adam Mickiewicz University, in Poznań, Poland. His interests focus on governance and institutional aspects of public policies concerning natural disasters, water management, climate change, and environmental protection.

Sate Ahmad is a research associate and PhD candidate at the Faculty of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, University of Rostock, Germany. His research focuses on a diverse range of topics in ecology and environmental social science, such as restoration of wetland phytodiversity and ecohydrology in northern Germany, population change, ecosystem services, and human well-being, as well as soil salinity and food security, in the coastal delta of Bangladesh.

Devendra Raj Singh is an assistant professor and Head of Research and Development at the Asian College for Advanced Studies, Purbanchal University in Nepal. He is also a national executive member of the Civil Society Alliance for Nutrition in Nepal (CSANN). He holds an MSc degree in Health Promotion and Public Health from Canterbury Christ Church University, United Kingdom.

Barbara Neumann is at the Institute for Advanced Sustainability Studies, Potsdam, Germany. Until recently, she was a postdoctoral researcher with Kiel University and the Cluster of Excellence “The Future Ocean” in Kiel. Her research interest and expertise is in human–environment interactions in coastal and marine areas, and in sustainable development and governance of coastal and marine systems. She holds a PhD in geography from Saarland University, Germany.

Zoe Matthews is professor of global health and social statistics at the University of Southampton. Professor Matthews's work focuses mainly on international health, specializing in health systems with a particular focus on reproductive, maternal, newborn and child health.


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