(Updates with quotes from report launch)
By Alex Whiting
ROME, Sept 15 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Global hunger levels have risen for the first time in more than a decade, now affecting 11 percent of the world’s population, as conflict, climate change and economic woes bite, U.N. agencies said on Friday.
Last year, 815 million people were hungry - 38 million more than in 2015 - the five agencies said in the first global assessment since governments set an international target to eliminate hunger and malnutrition by 2030, as one of a set of so-called Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
The number of hungry began to rise in 2014, but this is the first time in more then a decade that the proportion of the global population going hungry has risen.
About 489 million of the hungry are living in countries affected by conflict.
“Over the past decade, conflicts have risen dramatically in number and become more complex and intractable in nature,” the heads of five U.N. agencies said in The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2017 report.
“This has set off alarm bells we cannot afford to ignore: we will not end hunger and all forms of malnutrition by 2030 unless we address all the factors that undermine food security and nutrition,” they said.
Famine struck parts of South Sudan earlier this year, and there is a high risk that it could return there - and develop in other countries affected by conflict: northeast Nigeria, Somalia and Yemen, the agencies said.
David Beasley, the head of the World Food Programme (WFP) described the latest figures as “an indictment on humanity”.
“With all the successes of technology and wealth we should be absolutely going in the other direction,” he said at the report’s launch.
“We call upon the leaders of the world to ... apply the pressure that’s necessary to end these conflicts so we can achieve zero hunger,” he said.
The report was produced by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), U.N. Children’s Fund (UNICEF), WFP and World Health Organization (WHO).
The agencies called for new ways of working to achieve the goal of ending hunger and malnutrition by 2030.
“It’s not only about meeting need, but also ending the need and addressing the root causes of hunger,” Zlatan Milisic, WFP’s deputy director of programmes told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
In war-torn countries, it means agencies need to spend more time understanding the complexities of the conflict and working towards building peace, he said.
“We have a lot of research ... which says food insecurity doesn’t directly lead to conflict, but it is a very powerful trigger ... (and) food security has been as seen as a contributor to maintaining peace,” Milisic said.
Aid can sometimes increase tensions in a community. For example, unless aid for refugees supports their hosts as well, it may raise tensions with those families - who are often poor themselves with little access to basic services.
Aid programmes that create jobs, restore roads and improve farming in countries recovering from war help address root causes of conflict, FAO says.
Intense and prolonged droughts can significantly increase the likelihood of conflict, according to the report. And these are expected to become more frequent with climate change.
The proportion of children stunted by hunger fell to 22.9 percent in 2016, from 29.5 percent in 2005. Now, about 155 million children under five years old are affected. Stunting can undermine children’s physical and mental development.
“We see there is a decline - we also know that decline is not as fast as we would like ... to meet the SDG targets,” said Victor Aguayo, UNICEF’s director for nutrition said.
The number of stunted children - short for their age - fell by 40 percent between 1990 and 2015 and Aguayo said this decline should continue.
Progress hinges around improving diets for women and children, improving the status of women in society, and lowering poverty levels, he added.
A worrying trend is the rise of child obesity, with an estimated 41 million children around the world now overweight.
“Obesity is going to increasingly affect the poor, caused by poor diet and poor lifestyle,” Aguayo said.
Asia has the largest number of hungry people - 520 million - and sub-Saharan Africa has the highest proportion of hungry, affecting 20 percent of the population.
Wars, droughts linked to last year’s El Niño weather phenomenon and a global economic slowdown have affected people’s access to food, the agencies said.
A drop in employment rates and wages, and erosion of social safety nets, may result in a return of hunger in countries that have already eradicated it, José Graziano da Silva, director-general of FAO, said at the launch.
"To save lives, we must save livelihoods also ... This is the way forward that we see to eradicate hunger and extreme poverty once and for all," he said. (Reporting by Alex Whiting @Alexwhi, Editing by Ros Russell.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit news.trust.org/climate)