BOGOTA, COLOMBIA: Conflict has been the main driver of increased hunger in the Near East and North Africa (NENA) since 2015-17, according to a report released Thursday by a coalition of aid agencies, who also identified a large gap between Arab countries in hostilities and those at peace.
The report, titled “Regional Overview of Food Security and Nutrition in the Near East and North Africa 2020: Improving the Resilience of Food Systems in Arab States”, assessed the resilience and nutrition of food systems in 22 country stretching from Tunisia in the west to Yemen. in the East.
According to its 2019 estimates, around 51.4 million people in the region – roughly 12.2% of the population – were already hungry before the COVID-19 pandemic, which further exacerbated the disruption of food chains. supply and livelihood.
About 137 million people in the region were considered to be moderately or severely food insecure, without regular access to sufficient and nutritious food – a trend that is expected to worsen if measures are not taken to improve the quality of food. systemic resilience.
Because of this trend, the report predicts that the region will almost certainly not meet its commitments under the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals to end hunger by the end of the decade. In fact, based on its current trajectory, the number of hungry people is expected to exceed 75 million by 2030.
“The wave of instability and conflict has put stress on food systems, the direct and indirect effects of which manifest themselves in several ways. But the most visible consequence is the massive wave of forced migration, both internal and between countries, ”Abdulhakim Elwaer, representative of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO ) for the NENA.
“For example, according to the report’s findings, in 2020, 5 million Syrians were dependent on aid from the United Nations World Food Program (WFP). In addition, Lebanese workers now compete with Syrian migrants for agricultural jobs, increasing unemployment and rural poverty and hampering access to food.
“Meanwhile, in southern Yemen, 29.8 million people are said to be acutely food insecure in 2020, mainly due to the impact of violence, as well as other pre-existing socio-economic conditions. “
The report is based on a collaboration between FAO, the Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia, the International Fund for Agricultural Development, the United Nations International Children’s Fund (UNICEF), WFP and the World Organization of health.
What is particularly troubling about his findings is the impact of hunger and food insecurity on public health and child development. According to the report’s estimates for 2019, 22.5% of children under 5 were stunted, 9.2% wasted and 9.9% overweight.
Also due to poor diet, 27 percent of the region’s adult population is classified as obese, making the Arab region the world’s second worst offender for obesity. The same dietary deficiencies have left 35 percent of women of childbearing age anemic.
The conflict has turned out to be the main cause of the deterioration of the hunger situation in the Arab region. Although the report saw a sustained decline in undernourishment in Arab countries since 2000-02, this downward trend halted in 2014-16, coinciding with a significant increase in regional violence.
Indeed, during this period, Gaza endured nearly two months under intensive Israeli bombardment, Daesh took control of large areas of Iraq and Syria, Libya plunged into its second civil war, the Houthis supported by Iran took control of the capital of Yemen, Sana’a, and Somalia and Sudan. both have experienced an upsurge in violence, the combination of which contributed to the greatest human displacement since World War II.
“The decline in food security and the fight against hunger has been visible globally since 2015, with conflicts in the NENA region and other parts of the world among the main contributors to this decline,” said Elwaer.
“However, even when the direction of change in the region was still positive, between 11 and 12 percent of the adult population in the NENA region still suffered from hunger and severe food insecurity.”
According to the report, undernourishment in non-conflict countries in the region has varied between 5 and 8 percent since 2000-02. This is about two to three times that of most developed countries where undernourishment is typically less than 2.5 percent.
Hunger in countries in conflict, on the other hand, was much higher than in non-conflict countries, at around 24 to 30 percent. It had been on a downward trend until 2014-16, after which it started to rise.
For example, conflict-torn Iraq saw the prevalence of undernourishment drop from 25 percent in 2007-09 to 21.8 percent in 2011-13, to rise to 24 percent in 2015-17.
Although this figure fell to 23.7% in 2017-19, population growth means that the number of undernourished people in Iraq has steadily increased from 6.5 million in 2009-11 to 9.1 million in 2017- 19.
In contrast, a relatively peaceful Algeria saw its prevalence of undernourishment drop steadily from 5.6 percent in 2007-09 to 3.2 percent in 2015-17 – and it has continued to decline since. Meanwhile, in the wealthy Gulf state of Kuwait, the rate has been consistently below 2.5% over the entire period.
Although it is the main factor, conflict is not the only cause of growing hunger and food insecurity in the region. The report also highlighted weaknesses in regional food systems, hampered by the effects of climate change, bad policies and economic disruption, even before the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The full impact of the pandemic on food security in the region is difficult to assess in this report, which reflects the pre-COVID-19 situation,” Elwaer said. “However, it is safe to conclude that the pandemic has further exposed regional vulnerabilities.”
Other pressures on food supply chains have turned out to be water scarcity, heavy reliance on imports, inequality, population growth and massive migration.
“In addition to bad policies, shocks and stresses can affect the agri-food economy and worsen hunger and nutrition. In some countries, national policies put more emphasis on resources with unsustainable groundwater extractions leading to saltwater intrusion, ”he said.
“For example, Saudi Arabia in the past practiced intensive wheat cultivation at a high cost to freshwater aquifers. This practice has been corrected with recent, more sustainable and effective policies.
The high cost of a healthy diet was also found to be a factor, where nutritious diets with lots of fresh fruits and vegetables, legumes, meat and dairy cost about five times as much as a diet that meets the requirements. basic energy needs through a starchy food such as rice and bread.
Indeed, the report found that healthy food is unaffordable for more than 50 percent of the population in the Arab region, which is above the global average of 38 percent.
Elwaer said conflict and non-conflict countries in the region must pursue policies that will mitigate this wide range of challenges.
“Awareness is essential if we are to improve food security and nutrition for the public. Some countries in the region have shown serious intent to address mitigating factors. However, much more is needed to reverse the decline in food security and nutrition, ”he said.
“This might seem like a huge demand from countries in the current pandemic situation. Yet food security and nutrition are essential to the sustainable development agenda, which affects the well-being of populations and overall economic and social growth.