ROME, May 15 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Another year in education and an extra kilometre of road for every 1,000 people could dramatically improve communities' ability to withstand food crises, the United Nations has said.
Last year, 124 million people in 51 countries faced crisis levels of hunger, mainly due to conflicts and climate disasters, and experts say the situation is getting worse.
Emergency food assistance costs billions of dollars, but improving road access and ensuring people stayed in education for one more year could save over $1 billion, said a World Food Programme (WFP) report published on Monday.
That is a fifth of the $5.3 billion the WFP spent on food assistance in 2016, when 108 million people in 48 countries suffered acute hunger, said the report.
Even low-income countries can reduce the risk of large-scale food crises by focusing their investment on roads and schools, said the WFP's food systems chief Steven Were Omamo.
"The world is awash in food crises at the moment," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a phone interview.
"Preventing food crisis is not the preserve of rich countries. Governments are investing all the time, even in low-income countries."
Aid agencies say the expense of emergency food assistance often hampers the long-term development that is key to making populations resilient to shocks that could lead to starvation.
"Immediate relief, when we have a crisis, is no doubt a priority. But ... that is not enough," said José Graziano da Silva, director general of the Food and Agriculture Organization.
Aid agencies need to provide an approach that builds resilience, Graziano da Silva told journalists on Friday at a conference in Rome on North Africa and the Middle East, where millions are going hungry.
The biggest impact could be made through promoting peace, according to report, based on analysis of data from 152 countries between 2009 and 2015, of which 77 received WFP's assistance.
A one-point increase in the World Bank's index of political stability and absence of violence could halve food assistance expenditure, Omamo said.
That would mean a country like Central African Republic having the level of stability of Uganda, or Somalia having the stability of Kenya, he said.
WFP's new report makes clear that raising incomes is not enough to avoid hunger crises, said Dina Esposito, a vice president at international charity Mercy Corps.
While significant progress has been made, "trends suggest that food crises could continue to grow due to increasing and protracted violence in places like Yemen, South Sudan and elsewhere," she said in an email.
Reporting by Thin Lei Win, Editing by Claire Cozens.
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