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Nuclear weapons: a big threat to Africa, too

April 29, 2023

by Sally Ndung’u

7th July 2017 the United Nations adopted a new nuclear ban treaty- the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons.

A single nuclear bomb detonated in any part of the world could kill millions of people with the destruction extending far beyond the area of explosion. Those who remain would be at increased risk of cancer and chronic diseases over time and suffer genetic mutations that would persist through generations. If there were a nuclear war, even a limited one, the main cause of human fatalities would however not be the blast or radiation effects but mass starvation, and this brings the issue of nuclear weapons closer to you and I here in Africa!

As a doctor not a single day passes at work without me making a diagnosis of severe acute malnutrition in a child under 5 years of age. This often means battling with a series of infections in the child and a number of times certifying their death after they succumb to septic shock. Again, working in a public hospital, I serve the majority of Kenyans, a group of people who live below the poverty line and any threat to global food security is indeed a direct threat to them.

Studies have shown that in the event of a limited regional nuclear war, even if involving less than 0.5% of the world’s nuclear arsenal, there would be global climate disruption and a huge impact on agricultural production, global food prices and food supply and ultimately on human nutrition and health. For those in the world who are already chronically malnourished (the majority of whom live in Africa and Asia), just a persisting 10% decline in their food consumption would result in their starvation. The impact of rising food prices would be felt dis-proportionably by this group of people who even at baseline prices cannot afford to buy enough food.

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization 2015 report, 47% of the Sub- Saharan population in 2012 lived on $1.90 a day or less, a principal factor already causing widespread hunger. Recent estimates show that more than 200 million people in sub-Saharan Africa are undernourished. A report from Feed the Future, a US Government  Global Hunger and Food Security initiative shows that with the current food insecurity in Kenya, about 2-4 million people receive food aid annually. High levels of malnutrition afflict Kenya’s poorest people and under nutrition remains a leading cause of death among children under 5 years.

Millions of Africans remain vulnerable to the indirect effects of nuclear war, even if Africa is not directly targeted. Nuclear war remains a possibility as long as these weapons of mass destruction exist. The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) reports that nations in North Africa, home to more than 150 million people, import more than 45% of their food.  The agricultural disruption caused by a limited nuclear war would pose a threat to hundreds of millions of people who currently enjoy adequate nutrition but who are living in countries that are highly dependent on food imports.

In addition to this, and the epidemics of infectious diseases that inevitably accompany famine, with the limited food resources that would result and a worsened economy, ethnic and regional conflicts in our nations would increase, putting more lives in danger of death or deformities from armed violence.

It is good that we live in Africa, miles away from the nuclear weapon states and even better that Africa is a Nuclear Weapon Free Zone. However, let us not be blinded by a false sense of security this can create for us as a region. In the case of a large scale or even a limited regional nuclear war, we would not be spared. Even if we were lucky enough not to suffer from the blast effects, thermal burns or ionizing radiation, millions of us, especially those already suffering from inadequate food supplies, would die from starvation. That is why as Africa, we need to speak up against nuclear weapons, urge our governments to sign and ratify the UN Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, and press the nuclear weapon states to get on with and complete the negotiations to achieve nuclear disarmament to which they are obligated.

 Dr. Sally Ndung’u is IPPNW Co-President and is the president of the 23rd IPPNW World Congress, taking place from 27-29 April in Mombasa, Kenya. This editorial was originally published by the Kenya Broadcasting Corporation (KBC).

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