Red Cross helps boost food security

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By Sacha Bootsma in Pyongyang and Francis Markus in Beijing

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) is concerned about the fragile food security situation in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), especially for the country's most vulnerable people.

A prolonged winter of sub-zero temperatures, combined with crop losses from floods in 2010, is having a major impact on agricultural production in the country. A rapid food security assessment – carried out by the World Food Programme (WFP), the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) and UNICEF in March 2011 – estimates that the public distribution system will run out of food by May, posing a serious threat to an already chronically malnourished population.

"This adds up to a very worrying situation," says Martin Faller, the IFRC's regional representative for East Asia. He adds: "Helping communities to take concrete steps to improve their own food situation is the most effective approach. But clearly much more needs to be done."

Community-based working

Thanks to the community-based way of working, the Red Cross is able to adapt its ongoing programme activities to the changing needs that have been identified by communities themselves. Although most communities in the DPRK still prioritize water supply, for the past year, many have also been classifying food security as a key priority.

The Red Cross disaster management programme is addressing medium- to longer-term food security concerns by increasing crop production. This means protecting arable land from floods and mudflows, and developing the livelihoods component of the programme.

The construction of dams, dykes and riverbank reinforcements, as well as tree planting – all aimed to mitigate the impact of flooding – are helping communities limit the damage caused by floods.

By building greenhouses and providing food processing machines, the aim is also to improve the quality and diversity of food available. The first two pilot communities who received food-processing machines have successfully increased their capacity as they are now able to generate additional income for the most vulnerable groups.

This has been a huge incentive for communities to initiate their own projects with their own means – varying from a mushroom plantation, provision of meals to the elderly during winter, and the construction of a water reservoir, a dam, as well as several irrigation canals and sluices to irrigate a large number of rice fields.

Targeting those at risk of poor nutrition

The Red Cross is also helping people whose health may be at risk because of poor nutrition, mostly women and children. The IFRC is supporting an extensive health programme, providing essential medicines to over 2,000 clinics and more than 8 million people – about a third of DPRK's population.

In addition to receiving medicines, clinics also receive micronutrients and iron tablets to improve the health of pregnant and lactating women and undernourished children.

The IFRC's community-based health and first aid programme, which was piloted in 2010–2011 in two of the most vulnerable provinces, will focus specifically on nutrition and hygiene in the coming months. At the same time, the construction of clean drinking water facilities and proper sanitation that serve thousands of people will help reduce communities' exposure to disease.