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Arab world famished by conflict-induced hunger and drought

Arab world famished by conflict-induced hunger and drought
6 min read
16 May, 2023
The Arab region is facing unprecedented levels of food insecurity, caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, climate change and conflict. Unless sustainable solutions are found to address these challenges, the region is set to endure more hardship and hunger.

A UN report has warned that hunger and malnutrition have reached catastrophic levels in the Arab region as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia's invasion of Ukraine affecting access to basic supplies.

According to the report, 53.9 million people in the Arab world experienced acute food insecurity in 2021, a 55% increase from 2010. This is a 5 million-person increase from the prior year.

Moderate and severe food insecurity has also increased, with an estimated 154.3 million people expected to experience it in 202. This is an increase of 11.6 million over the previous year.

The 2022 Near East and North Africa Regional Overview of Food Security and Nutrition was jointly released on 28 March by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO); the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA); the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD); the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF); the World Food Program (WFP); and the World Health Organization (WHO).

In the Arab region, 162.7 million people, or more than half the population, couldn't afford to eat healthily in 2020. Since 2017, the price of a balanced diet in the Arab world has risen annually, reaching USD 3.47 per person per day in 2020.

The report noted that malnutrition still plagues the region. While the regional indicators for stunted growth, 7.8%, is higher than the global average of 6.7%, stunting prevalence, at 20.5%, affects one out of every five children under the age of 5, which was lower than the global average. Since 2000, there has been a steady rise in the frequency of overweight among children under the age of 5, which reached 10.7% in 2020.

Yemen remains one of the largest humanitarian crises in the world. Over 23 million require food assistance, including over 13 million children [Getty Images]

The region’s economies were also hurt by the recession caused by COVID-19. While economic activity recovered, international commodity prices for food, energy, feed, and fertiliser surged, while supply chain bottlenecks pushed up transportation costs as well, causing high inflation in food, energy, and fertiliser-importing countries in the region.

Rob Vos, director of markets, trade and institutions at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) told The New Arab. “Much of governments’ capacity to protect the food security of vulnerable populations through price subsidies, social protection programs and/or increased food imports have been depleted."

“This report comes at a critical juncture, as the region has been experiencing an array of external shocks in recent years," Abdelhakim El-Waer, Assistant Director-General of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the organisation’s Regional Representative for the Near East and North Africa (NENA) region said to  The New Arab. "The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed fragilities in agri-food systems, exacerbated inequalities, and increased global and regional hunger and malnutrition."

Abdelhakim added that the region was already behind schedule in terms of meeting hunger and nutrition-related Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) targets prior to the pandemic. Grain, fertiliser, and energy costs increased as a result of the ongoing conflict in Ukraine.

According to the FAO official, these crises have disproportionately affected Arab states as they rely on imported food to meet their food security requirements. Additional difficulties include systemic problems like poverty and inequality, conflict, and climate change.​​

The main producer of agricultural fertilisers in the world, Russia is also the largest wheat exporter, with Ukraine ranking fifth. Together, the two countries provide 19% of the world's barley supply, 14% of the wheat supply, and 4% of the maize supply, accounting for more than a third of the world's grain exports.

Driven by rising demand, input, transportation costs and port disruptions, food prices reached an all-time high in February 2022. International prices of wheat and barley increased by 31% compared to 2021. Prices of rapeseed oil and sunflower oil increased by more than 60%.

Abeer Etefa, the spokesperson for the WFP’s office in the MENA region told The New Arab that the impact of the Ukrainian conflict varies between the countries of the region, according to the national product and the level of dependence on imports. Lebanon, for example, imports 50% of its wheat needs from Ukraine, Yemen 22%, and Tunisia 42%.

Abeer explained that the Black Sea Grain Initiative has helped in easing some of these negative impacts, and at least contributed to stabilising the prices of grains, but still, we are at an all-time high.

The initiative signed on 27 July 2022 in Istanbul, aimed to resume Ukrainian grain, foodstuffs and fertiliser exports via the Black Sea ports. The initiative has allowed nearly 25 million metric tonnes of foodstuff from Ukraine to reach global markets, according to the UN. 

“Five countries in the region have seen food inflation go beyond 60% this year, with Lebanon and Syria facing triple-digit food inflation at 138% and 105% respectively. In Iran, Turkey, and Egypt, annual food inflation is more than 61%, making it difficult for families to afford essential food items like bread, rice, and vegetables," Abeer explained.

According to February data, four out of 15 countries on WFP’s currency watch list are in the region. In Lebanon, Egypt, Syria, and Iran, currencies have depreciated between 45 and 71% over the past 12 months.

“In 2023, WFP is targeting nearly 35 million people across the region with food and nutrition assistance and working to increase the resilience of the most vulnerable in the face of regional and global shocks,” Abeer said. She further noted that the WFP allocated direct food assistance to almost half the population of Lebanon, 13 million people in Yemen, and over 5 million people in Syria.

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The WFP is looking at the capacity of certain countries to deal with climate change. It is working in 10 countries in the region, helping more than one million people, by investing in sustainable agriculture, renewable energy, and water management.

Rob believes that “there are no simple solutions”, adding conflict remains a key driver of severe food insecurity, and that cause has to be addressed to avoid permanent reliance on humanitarian assistance. "Addressing the cost-of-living crisis by bringing inflation down through adequate macroeconomic measures will be a short-term priority while diversifying trade and shifting towards sustainable, climate-resilient domestic food production should be long-term goals.”  

Mohammed El-Said is Science Editor at Daily News Egypt. His work has appeared in Science Magazine, Nature Middle East, Scientific American Arabic Edition, SciDev and other prominent regional and international media outlets.

Follow him on Twitter: @MOHAMMED2SAID