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Saturday, July 24, 2021

Middle East: Please heed the signs

BY Hafed Al-Ghwell

 

Global food prices have soared by the largest margin since 2011, leading to fears that the surge in costs for agricultural commodities, many of which are staples in Middle Eastern and North African diets, could spark inflation at a time when most states are still struggling to get vaccination campaigns off the ground.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic most Arab countries were already experiencing crisis levels of food insecurity and undernourishment, worsening the plight of those in the conflict zones of Syria, Libya and Yemen, and in areas plagued by instability, such as Lebanon, Palestine, and Iraq. It does not stop there.

The cumulative and worsening effects of climate change have also sent temperatures soaring in the region, with five countries joining the “50-degree Celsius” club this year alone, a month before hitting their expected annual average peak.

Excessive heat can be deadly, with casualty statistics that can easily dwarf those of wildfires and floods.

The combination of high temperatures and humidity in MENA coastal areas, compared with the more arid inland regions, can combine to produce choking heat indexes of 60 C and above.

Above-ground weather phenomena certainly explain prolonged reductions in precipitation and the region’s worsening droughts, but lockdown restrictions, pandemic-induced slowdowns and shocks to global supply chains compound well-documented challenges eroding MENA food security.

As always, the bulk of this suffering falls squarely on the shoulders of the Arab world’s impoverished, vulnerable communities such as refugees and, more recently, the swelling rank of low-skilled migrant workers unable to find new employment or return to their home countries.

Currently, food security in the Middle East and North Africa is threatened by conflict, instability, economic turmoil, rising poverty, dwindling arable lands due to desertification, and rapid urbanization.

Hafed Al-Ghwell

Since 2019, Arab governments have done their part to ensure a clash of crises, conflicts and instability will not sink economies or drown societies in civil discord during a raging pandemic.

Critics will decry some of their efforts or dismiss them as simply doing the bare minimum, and in Lebanon’s case, not doing anything at all. However, it is important to avoid trivializing the enormity of existing challenges and the rocky road that lies ahead. Pausing efforts to improve food/water security, build resilience into domestic capacities, and the Arab world’s ability to absorb external shocks is inadvisable, simply because current priorities are fixated on getting populations vaccinated.

Granted, national finances are severely constrained and unable to find the fiscal or monetary room to maneuver by making critical investments in resilience-building infrastructure or even tackling the political land mine that is comprehensive public sector reform.

Meanwhile, increased borrowing to deal with pandemic-related challenges will likely result in even more of already limited public revenues going toward servicing debt, stifling opportunities for the Arab world to seize on the moment and build the economies of the future, as a sustainable way to emerge from the pandemic crisis.

Yet still, the public’s needs keep growing as social safety nets must remain intact even as tax revenues are at record lows due to falling incomes and double-digit unemployment rates in economies yet to fully recover. In addition, at the rate at which the MENA population is growing, so, too, will the public’s demands for accessibility and affordability of basic services.

However, most states appear unprepared for this population bump, severely lacking in the capacity to invest and capitalize on a growing population to enhance domestic consumption, improve regional competitiveness and ultimately build more robust economies resistant to external shocks.

Currently, food security in the Middle East and North Africa is threatened by conflict, instability, economic turmoil, rising poverty, dwindling arable lands due to desertification, and rapid urbanization.

In some particularly vulnerable countries, this can be already felt, for instance, in Lebanon, where food inflation soared to over 400 percent last year, worsened by a multitude of crises, including COVID-19 and the Beirut port explosion.

Food prices are still over 200 percent in Lebanon, as well as in Syria and Sudan.

In Iraq, a combination of factors has resulted in nearly 10 percent of the population becoming food poor, resorting to negative coping strategies such as limiting food intake, relying on cheaper, less nutritious sources, borrowing, and relying on debt. Food security in Syria has more or less deteriorated, which is having a spillover effect in Lebanon — from the vulnerable refugee populations to the diversions of heavily subsidized foodstuffs to war-torn Syria.

Even in relatively stable states, the situation is in no way better, except in a few Gulf states where food security has become a national priority. After all, domestic food production is still vulnerable and will be the first casualty of the increasingly visible signs of climate change, such as record-breaking heatwaves, less precipitation, more intense tropical cyclones and flooded coastal areas.

Meanwhile, freshwater sources are also depleting rapidly, even with alternative sources such as desalinization, which will likely never reach sufficient scale, because of their enormous electricity consumption.

This adds more pressure on national energy grids already operating at or above their advised capacity to electrify industries, businesses and households.

Without serious mitigation efforts locally, regionally and across the globe, MENA is quickly reaching a tipping point — further accelerated by a rise in global food prices as indicated by the Food and Agriculture Organization’s monthly food price index (FPI). In the past six years, food insecurity has worsened and now affects nearly 10 percent of the world’s population.

The global pandemic worsened these statistics, making an additional 80-130 million people food poor across the planet, with the urban poor feeling the most impact.

For MENA, the largest food-importing region in the world, this sharp increase in the FPI — the 12th consecutive monthly rise in a decade — should be the ultimate warning that urgent action is needed now more than ever.

Regardless of its contributing factors, growing hunger makes for a desperate populace, which will make states prone to collapse as people take matters into their own hands and try to secure their lives and livelihoods by any means necessary. Granted, in areas where man-made conflict is wreaking havoc on communities, infrastructure and domestic food production capacities, the only solution remains painstaking, often time-consuming conflict resolution processes.

However, where there is relative stability and sufficient food production capacity despite prevailing socioeconomic challenges or even political gridlock, national priorities should center on long-term food security, ensuring adequate preparation not only for post-pandemic global food inflation but also other future shocks, both external and domestic.

If the region is firmly set on transforming out of its many dependencies, from hydrocarbons to foodstuffs, governments must act with the utmost urgency to not only shore up domestic capacities but also frame food, nutrition, and water crises as the existential threats they are before it is too late. (Courtesy Arab News)

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