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Electricity pylons of the defunct Orlando Power Station, in Soweto, South Africa, on Jan. 24.SIPHIWE SIBEKO/Reuters

When the lights went out in South Africa this week, the country’s electricity monopoly warned that the war in Ukraine could soon deepen the darkness. Power cuts are common in South Africa, a legacy of corruption and deferred maintenance. But to stave off a complete collapse, the state-owned utility Eskom is heavily reliant on the emergency use of diesel fuel. It now uses nine million litres every day to run its turbines – and admits this will become unsustainable as oil prices soar as a result of the war.

“We will get to a point where we don’t have funds to pay for diesel,” Calib Cassim, Eskom’s chief financial officer, warned at a briefing this week.

The prospect of worsening blackouts in South Africa is just one example of how the Russian invasion of Ukraine is sending shock waves around the world. As always in wartime, it is the poorest and most vulnerable who will suffer the most – this time from a global surge in food and fuel costs.

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South Africa has one of the highest per-capita incomes on the African continent, but its economy is highly unequal. Even before the Ukraine war, an estimated 17 per cent of its people were routinely experiencing hunger – substantially higher than before the pandemic. Now they face a barrage of new pressures.

Petrol prices in South Africa jumped to a record high last week, and another big increase is expected at the end of the month, causing a surge in transportation costs. More frequent power outages will hit the country’s poorest hardest, because they cannot afford backup energy sources such as generators.

The country imports half its wheat, so the skyrocketing prices of grains on global markets will cause a spike in food costs. Globally, the price of wheat has jumped almost 80 per cent since the war began less than three weeks ago, climbing close to record levels and surpassing the prices that helped spark the historic Arab Spring protests in 2011.

Ukraine and Russia provide about 30 per cent of global wheat supplies, along with 20 per cent of the world’s corn exports and 80 per cent of its sunflower oil. The war has severely disrupted Ukraine’s supply lines and halted commercial shipping from its ports, while Russian exports are hampered by sanctions and freight costs.

“Russia’s invasion of Ukraine poses serious risks to global food security,” the International Food Policy Research Institute said in a published analysis.

“This could push up already-high food price inflation and have serious consequences for low-income net-food-importing countries.”

Scott Irwin, an agricultural economist at the University of Illinois, predicted last week that the war will trigger “the biggest supply shock to global grain markets in my lifetime.” In a commentary on social media, he added: “Basically nothing can be done in the short run, except to run up the price of grain high enough to ration demand.” This could cause “wildly high” prices, he said.

The food index of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization reported this month that global food prices have already reached an all-time high. The rising prices of wheat, corn and vegetable oils, driven by the Ukraine war, were among the biggest factors.

This, in turn, will severely hinder the operations of the world’s humanitarian relief agencies.

“The collateral damage? Catastrophic world hunger,” said David Beasley, executive director of the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP), in a tweet this week.

The WFP, which provides a crucial supply of relief rations for 120 million of the world’s poorest people in war zones and other food emergencies, has depended on Ukraine for about 50 per cent of its grain supplies and 80 per cent of its sunflower oil. If it has to find other suppliers, its costs will increase drastically.

“We’re looking at a price hike that will cost us in operational costs about US$60-million to US$75-million more per month,” Mr. Beasley said. “And that means less people are going to get food, which means more people are going to go to bed hungry.”

Some countries, such as Egypt and Lebanon, are heavily dependent on wheat from Russia and Ukraine. Egypt subsidizes the price of bread, but those subsidies will become increasingly expensive, putting pressure on the government to raise prices.

Economically struggling countries such as Zimbabwe and Sudan have been hit with rapid rises in fuel costs in recent days as a result of the war. Zimbabwean authorities have announced two separate fuel-price increases this week, while Sudan hiked its petrol prices 32 per cent Wednesday.

Sudan, already close to economic collapse, could be the most vulnerable country in Africa. It too is heavily dependent on wheat from Russia and Ukraine, and its military government is acutely aware that bread prices are highly sensitive politically. It was a sharp rise in bread prices in 2018 that led to a wave of anti-government protests in the streets, eventually toppling the regime of dictator Omar al-Bashir, who had held power for 30 years.

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