How COVID-19 crisis undermined MENA states’ food security progress

A boy waits as Palestinian Walid al-Hattab (R) distributes soup to people in need during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan in Gaza City, amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (AFP/File Photo)
A boy waits as Palestinian Walid al-Hattab (R) distributes soup to people in need during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan in Gaza City, amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (AFP/File Photo)
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Updated 21 November 2021

How COVID-19 crisis undermined MENA states’ food security progress

A boy waits as Palestinian Walid al-Hattab (R) distributes soup to people in need during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan in Gaza City, amid the COVID-19 pandemic. (AFP/File Photo)
  • Food price volatility has increased in a region where hunger was on the rise even prior to COVID-19, a FAO study warns
  • MENA’s progress toward UN SDG of zero hunger has been set back by the pandemic, the study says

DUBAI: Progress toward the UN Sustainable Development Goals in the Middle East and North Africa region has been hit hard by the global pandemic, with many of the achievements of the past decade reversed, according to a new report from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.

FAO says that at least 132 million people have been plunged into chronic hunger since the start of the pandemic, with up to 14 percent of food lost along the supply chain before it reaches consumers, and entire regions facing acute water stress.

“It is not a good feeling to see these figures,” Ahmad Mukhtar, the FAO’s senior economist for the Near East and North Africa, told Arab News, referring to the report’s findings.

“These are alarming figures for the MENA region because, for some years, the numbers were almost steady and we had seen a decrease in this absolute number. But COVID-19 stopped that and now it’s on the rise, so these figures are serious.”

Areas where progress has stalled, or gone into reverse, include agricultural systems and small-scale food production, which have borne the brunt of the pandemic’s economic toll, the report says.

It adds that food price volatility has increased due to the pandemic and associated lockdown measures, while progress remains weak in maintaining plant and animal genetic diversity for food and agriculture.

“In the Arab region, hunger was already on the rise before COVID-19, primarily because of climate change and conflicts,” Mukhtar said.

“The pandemic increased the number of undernourished people. However, if we look at the past two decades, our region has almost doubled in the number of undernourished people, reaching 69 million last year, which is a 91 percent increase.”

Mukhtar says conflict is the leading obstacle to food security in the MENA region, followed by climate change and calamities such as COVID-19.




A Syrian child sifts through a garbage dump, desperate for something to sell, repurpose or even eat, near an oil field in the countryside of Malikiya in northeast Syria. (AFP/File Photo)

Coupled with chronic inequalities and poverty, these threats mean the sustainable development goal of zero hunger by 2030 will be unachievable unless radical steps are taken immediately.

“We now have to tackle more than 800 million hungry people in seven years, which looks quite unlikely unless drastic measures are taken around the world,” he said.

“For the region, there are challenges that predate the pandemic. COVID-19 has added to them.”

Hayatullah Ahmadzai, a postdoctoral fellow at the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture in Dubai, said that the pandemic has had a devastating impact on human health and the world economy, as shown by several development indicators.

“Agriculture and food production are not exempt,” Ahmadzai told Arab News. “On the production side, the pandemic could lead to a drop in output because of a manpower shortage and a reduction in agricultural holdings.”




Palestinian farmer Amouna Abu Rajila, 66, works in her family farm near the border with Israel, east of Khan Yunis in the southern Gaza Strip on March 29, 2021. (AFP/File Photo)

He said lockdowns, a fall in international trade, disruption to food manufacturing, and an overall economic downturn are likely to have a substantial and lasting impact on food supply chains.

Disruption to food systems has resulted in reduced access to food, widening the gap between food security and zero hunger goals. Globally, the FAO report says, moderate or severe food insecurity has been steadily increasing, from 26.6 percent in 2019 to 30.4 percent in 2020.

Several Middle Eastern countries were vulnerable to food insecurity due to harsh environments and limited natural resources for sustainable crop production even before the pandemic.

“Food security has been further compromised by economic shocks and plummeting earnings linked to the pandemic outbreak and the collapse of oil prices in 2020, particularly for the region’s poorest,” Ahmadzai said.

“Adding to the conflict and economic turmoil, those in vulnerable nations have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. However, in some Middle Eastern countries with generally stable food markets, like the UAE, the impact may be less severe, particularly in those that have facilitated food supply on a war footing during the epidemic era, especially in 2020 and 2021.”




Syrian women helping out with Hathi Hayati volunteering group prepare meals to distribute to families in displacement camps for Iftar. (AFP/File Photo)

In general, the region is heavily reliant on cereal imports and is sensitive to global market disruptions. Ahmadzai pointed out that more than three-quarters of demand in most regional countries are met by imports.

“The Middle East region is one of the most vulnerable to a food crisis as a result of COVID-19, as well as other reasons, such as increased climate-change effects and economic unrest due to political instability,” he said.

“The lessons learned during the 2007-08 food crisis, which was marked by uncoordinated policy responses by countries, resulting in trade disruption and food price rises, could aid governments in the region in reversing some of the detrimental effects of the pandemic on agriculture and food security.”

Reforming trade and tax policies to encourage trade flows, as well as monitoring food prices, could also help keep food commerce open, while lowering the risk of supply shortages, he said.

“Understanding the implications of confinement measures on the agricultural industry and responding to protect the food supply chain requires close coordination and information exchange among countries in the region,” Ahmadzai said.




All countries, including those in the MENA region, should rely more on local food production and less on imports, experts have said. (AFP/File Photo)

“Given that most nations in the region rely heavily on food imports, the COVID-19 situation necessitates closer collaboration between the public and corporate sectors, as well as stronger civil society participation in decision-making.”

All countries, including those in the MENA region, should rely more on local food production and less on imports, he added. An inclusive growth model is needed, whereby all actors in the food supply chain play their part and address bottlenecks as quickly as possible.

“Another important strategy to deal with the pandemic threat is to promote healthy and nutritious meals. This is because those who suffer from obesity, diabetes and other non-communicable diseases are in the COVID-19 high-risk group.”

Mukhtar recommends the implementation of response and recovery plans that immediately tackle supply issues. “We at the FAO are focusing on transforming the agricultural food systems in our region and globally to make them inclusive, sustainable, efficient and resilient,” he said.

“We have to change our approach instead of focusing on food availability or supply. We can have a transformative regional agricultural food systems agenda where all countries come together and try to see the complementarities between each other.”




Ahmad Mukhtar, senior economist at FAO’s Regional Office for Near East and North Africa. (Supplied)

With 30 percent of regional food coming from Egypt alone, more investment in food security and greater deployment of agri-tech in production and distribution, as well as public-private sector partnerships, could make such a system both resilient and efficient.

“There are times when countries have money, but there is no food in the global market, which is a very dangerous proposition,” Rakesh Kumar Singh, program lead on crop diversity and genetics at the International Center for Biosaline Agriculture, told Arab News.

“It happened in the past in the 2007-2008 food crisis, when most of the exporting countries put an embargo on exporting food grains. This unpleasant scenario taught a big lesson to many countries, and many of them changed their food policy afterward.”

The pandemic left nations in a similar position, but thanks to buffer stocks of food and crops maturing at the time of the pandemic, the worst was avoided.

“This pandemic has compromised rural incomes due to a shrinkage in agricultural holdings and productivity,” Singh said. “As a result, many rural populations have lost employment.

Looking to the future, he said: “Scaling up social protection measures is crucial now to ensure the basic needs of vulnerable people are met, including those who have lost their jobs because of the pandemic, and to avoid adding a food security crisis to the health crisis.”

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Twitter: @CalineMalek


Tens of thousands protest in anti-military marches in Sudan

Tens of thousands protest in anti-military marches in Sudan
Updated 35 min 51 sec ago

Tens of thousands protest in anti-military marches in Sudan

Tens of thousands protest in anti-military marches in Sudan
  • Protesters took to the streets in Khartoum and other cities to demand that the armed forces stay out of government
  • Sudanese security forces have cracked down on the rallies and have killed some 43 protesters so far

CAIRO: Security forces fired tear gas at anti-coup protesters in the Sudanese capital on Tuesday, as tens of thousands marched in the latest demonstrations against a military takeover that took place last month.
Protesters took to the streets in Khartoum and other cities around the country to demand that the armed forces stay out of government.
Deposed Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok was reinstated earlier this month under military oversight in a deal that many in the pro-democracy movement oppose. Since the generals seized power on Oct. 25 and rounded up more than 100 civilian government figures, protesters have repeatedly taken to the streets.
In a video streamed online from the Bahri neighborhood of Khartoum, a few protesters threw stones as security forces repeatedly fired tear gas and used sound bombs to try to disperse them. Leaders of the pro-democracy movement have consistently called on those taking part in demonstrations to remain peaceful. In a larger march not far away, demonstrators filled an entire street.
Sudanese security forces have cracked down on the rallies and have killed some 43 protesters so far, according the Sudan Doctors’ Committee, which tracks protester deaths. On Tuesday, the group announced that the latest death was that of a protester who died from hemorrhaging in the skull after being badly beaten by security forces during a march last week.
On Saturday, Hamdok announced the replacement of top officials in the country’s police forces, according to Sudan’s state news agency, firing those who oversaw the response to earlier demonstrations.
Tuesday’s demonstrations come after Hamdok emphasized that the Sudanese people have the right to peacefully protest. In a Facebook post on Monday, he said it is a right “the Sudanese people have secured through decades of struggle.”
The military’s signing of a power-sharing deal with Hamdok coincided with his release from weeks of house arrest. Since then, a number of other officials have also been let go but many remain in detention, along with many activists and protesters.
Hamdok’s reinstatement was the biggest concession made by the military since the coup but leaves the country’s transition to democracy mired in crisis. Sudan’s key pro-democracy groups and political parties have dismissed the deal as falling short of their demands for full civilian rule.
Sudan has been struggling with its transition to a democratic government since the overthrow of autocrat Omar Al-Bashir in 2019, following a mass uprising against three decades of his rule.


If Iran not serious this week, there will be a problem, senior E3 diplomats say

Updated 10 sec ago

If Iran not serious this week, there will be a problem, senior E3 diplomats say

If Iran not serious this week, there will be a problem, senior E3 diplomats say

VIENNA: There will be a problem if Iran does not show it is serious in nuclear negotiations with world powers this week, senior European diplomats said on Tuesday.
As talks resumed in Vienna, the diplomats from France, Britain and Germany, known as the E3, told reporters that they had still not resolved the thorny issue of what to do with advanced centrifuges which Iran is using to enrich uranium.


Emotions run high as Syrians plead with UN Security Council to investigate war crimes

Emotions run high as Syrians plead with UN Security Council to investigate war crimes
Updated 55 min 31 sec ago

Emotions run high as Syrians plead with UN Security Council to investigate war crimes

Emotions run high as Syrians plead with UN Security Council to investigate war crimes
  • Torture survivor Alshogre urges delegates to hold Assad regime accountable for its treatment of political prisoners
  • Sentencing by a German court of former Syrian agent Eyad Al-Gharib to four and a half years in prison on charges of aiding and abetting crimes against humanity hailed as historic

NEW YORK: The atmosphere in the UN Security Council changed when human rights activist and survivor of Assad regime prisons Omar Alshogre began to talk. Monday’s meeting had been convened to shed light on the prevailing impunity in Syria and the need for the council to do more to end it and ensure accountability for crimes committed during the country’s ongoing war.

The conflict began when the regime launched a brutal crackdown on peaceful protesters during the “Damascus Spring.” Since then, more than 350,000 people have died and millions more forced from their homes.

Alshogre, whose harrowing experiences as a political prisoner in Bashar Assad’s jails — “being detained, starved, tortured within an inch of my life” — had made the news worldwide, looked the representatives of world powers in the eye in the UNSC chamber and asked them: “If you were presented with the opportunity to save an innocent life without risking your own, would you do it? Most people would.”

“Ladies and gentlemen,” the 25-year-old refugee continued. “The opportunity is presenting itself today. It presented itself yesterday, and every day since March 15, 2011. That is 3,912 missed opportunities to save lives in Syria. In that time, more than 350,000 people have been killed by the Syrian regime, according to the UN.”

The informal meeting was convened by council members Estonia, France, the UK and the US, along with a dozen sponsors including Qatar and Turkey.

Alshogre told the ambassadors that it was his own mother’s “courage to stand up to the brutal dictatorship” that saved his life and urged them to remember her name, “Hala,” and follow her example.

Despite her husband and sons being massacred in front of her eyes by Assad’s men and their “Iranian allies,” and “instead of complaining about her limitations, (my mother) found a way to take action.

“Despite many failed attempts to get me out of prison, she kept trying again and again. She persisted until I was freed,” Alshogre said.

“By saving me from prison, my mother set an example of how we all must act to stop the Syrian regime from taking more lives and hold its leaders accountable for the countless lives it has already taken.

“It doesn’t require a miracle. It just requires courage, action and persistence.”

A recent report by the UN’s Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Syrian Arab Republic concluded that thousands of detainees have been subjected to “unimaginable suffering” during the war, including torture, death and sexual violence against women, girls and boys.

The UNSC had tasked the commission with investigating and recording all violations of international law since the start of the conflict.

“At least 20 different, horrific methods of torture used by the government of Syria have been extensively documented,” the investigators wrote in their report.

“These include administering electric shocks, the burning of body parts, pulling of nails and teeth, mock executions, folding detainees into a car tire, and crucifying or suspending individuals from one or two limbs for prolonged periods, often in combination with severe beating.”

The perpetrators, however, still roam freely in Syria amid no tangible deterrence, as violations and crimes continue to this day.

The sentencing by a German court in Koblenz in February of former Syrian secret agent Eyad Al-Gharib to four and a half years in prison on charges of aiding and abetting crimes against humanity has been hailed as historic.

Al-Gharib had been accused of rounding up peaceful anti-government protesters and delivering them to a detention center, where they were tortured. The verdict marked the first time a court outside Syria had ruled on state-sponsored torture by members of the Assad regime.

Christoph Heusgen, Germany’s former permanent representative to the UN, said the verdict of the Koblenz state court sends a clear message to Assad that “whoever commits such crimes cannot be safe anywhere.” He added that “Assad’s state has turned the cradle of civilization into a torture chamber.”

Teams from war crimes units in Sweden, France and Germany have recently begun joint investigations into Syria’s war crimes, with Sweden focusing on torture and killings by both the Assad regime and Daesh.

In France, a preliminary investigation has drawn on the tens of thousands of photos of dead bodies taken between 2011 and 2013 by “Caesar,” the codename for a former Syrian military photographer.

While speakers at Monday’s meeting welcomed similar proceedings in courts outside of Syria, they said that such moves “do not come close to addressing the magnitude of the Syrian crisis.”

They lamented the UNSC’s inaction and the fate of its 2014 resolution to refer the situation in Syria to the International Criminal Court, which was not approved.

“Several resolutions aimed at identifying those responsible for the use of chemical weapons met the same fate,” said the meeting’s sponsors in a statement. They reiterated their call for the file to be placed in the hands of the ICC.

As Syrian filmmaker Waad Al-Kateab, who also gave heart-wrenching testimony about life under Assad, played a video in the chamber showing an Aleppo mother at the moment she lost her child in an Assad bombing, some council members choked back tears.

Alshogre said: “We have stronger evidence today than what we had against the Nazis at Nuremberg. (We) even know where the mass graves are located. But still no international court and no end to the ongoing slaughter for the civilians in Syria.

“I understand that there are barriers to action, but I also believe in the international system and the UN and the principles they were founded upon.”

Alshogre made a final plea to the international community that, while it is too late to save those who died, there are millions of Syrian lives that can still be saved and “that is my biggest ask to you: That you save them.”


Geagea says delaying vote would condemn Lebanon to ‘slow death’

Geagea says delaying vote would condemn Lebanon to ‘slow death’
Updated 57 min 50 sec ago

Geagea says delaying vote would condemn Lebanon to ‘slow death’

Geagea says delaying vote would condemn Lebanon to ‘slow death’
  • Geagea pointed the finger at Hezbollah and Free Patriotic Movement for moves to delay parliamentary election
  • “With the current way things are going, state institutions — and so the state — is dissolving day by day,” he said

MAARAB, Lebanon: One of Lebanon’s main Christian politicians accused foe Hezbollah and its allies of working to postpone a parliamentary election set for March over fears of electoral losses, warning such a move would condemn Lebanon to a “slow death.”

Western donors that Lebanon is relying on to stem its financial implosion have said the vote must go ahead. Politicians from all sides, including Hezbollah, have repeatedly said it should happen otherwise the country’s standing would be dealt a further blow.

But Samir Geagea, leader of the Lebanese Forces, pointed the finger at Hezbollah and its ally President Michel Aoun’s Free Patriotic Movement for moves to delay it “because they are near certain that they will lose their parliamentary majority.”

Aoun said this month he would not sign authorization for the vote, approved by parliament, to be held on March 27 as the date was too early.

Asked whether a postponement would lead to more fighting after clashes last month between the Lebanese Forces and Hezbollah, Geagea, said: “Not fighting, but to more slow death.”

“With the current way things are going, state institutions — and so the state — is dissolving day by day,” he said at his residence in the mountains overlooking the coastal town of Jounieh.

Lebanon has no reliable opinion polling but should the election take place, Geagea’s party is widely expected to make gains, with the Free Patriotic Movement expected to lose seats, potentially robbing Hezbollah of its majority.

Without an election to shake up parliament “you will see more of the same,” Geagea said. The United Nations says the economic meltdown has left nearly 80 percent of people in poverty.

Lebanon’s government, formed from most major political parties in September following a 13-month period of political paralysis, has already not convened in nearly 50 days amid a push by Hezbollah and its allies to remove the judge investigating the deadly August 2020 Beirut port blast.

Geagea’s Lebanese Forces is the second largest Christian party in parliament. It has stayed out of the cabinet since a popular uprising against the sectarian elite in 2019.

But the group was thrust back into the headlines when tensions over the probe erupted into the worst street violence in more than a decade last month, reviving memories of the country’s 1975-90 civil war.

Seven people, all followers of Hezbollah and its ally Amal, were killed.
Hezbollah accused the Lebanese Forces of ambushing its supporters at the protest. Geagea confirmed supporters of his party, along with others, were involved in the clashes, but denied the move was pre-meditated and blamed Hezbollah for entering Beirut’s mostly Christian Ain Al-Remmaneh neighborhood, a strong support base for the Lebanese Forces.

During Lebanon’s civil war, the Lebanese Forces, under Geagea, was a right-wing militia that controlled swathes of territory including eastern Beirut.

Following October’s clashes, Hezbollah’s leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah accused it of seeking to start a sectarian conflict and warned Hezbollah had 100,000 fighters at his disposal.

Geagea denied Nasrallah’s allegation that the Lebanese Forces had 15,000 fighters, saying the party had 35,000 members of whom only some had personal arms and perhaps more than 10,000 — “the whole old generation” — had military training.

Geagea said the Lebanese Forces did not seek a physical confrontation with Hezbollah and were not concerned about the breakout of sectarian violence due to the role of the Lebanese Army in maintaining civil peace.

However, he said he had limited his movement and was not leaving his mountain residence in Maarab due to security threats, without giving further details.


Syria seizes amphetamine-based drugs headed for Saudi Arabia

Syria seizes amphetamine-based drugs headed for Saudi Arabia
Updated 30 November 2021

Syria seizes amphetamine-based drugs headed for Saudi Arabia

Syria seizes amphetamine-based drugs headed for Saudi Arabia
  • US law enforcement officials say smuggling of Captagon from Syria and Lebanon has been on the rise
  • Authorities became suspicious and stopped a van in rural Damascus carrying 525 kilograms of the pills

DAMASCUS: Syrian authorities said Tuesday they seized over 500 kilograms (1,000 pounds) of amphetamine pills known by the brand name Captagon hidden in pasta packages in a van bound for Saudi Arabia.
An investigation was underway to determine who was behind the attempted smuggling, a statement on the official state news agency SANA said. It didn’t offer details on whether anyone has been arrested.
US law enforcement officials say smuggling of the amphetamine-based drug from Syria and Lebanon has been on the rise, with over $3 billion worth of Captagon seized since February 2020.
The amount far exceeds the value of Syrian legal exports, said James Walsh, a high-level official with the State Department’s international narcotics bureau, earlier this month. He had no details on how much goes through Lebanon and how much is from Syria.
The statement carried by SANA said authorities became suspicious and stopped a van in rural Damascus carrying 525 kilograms (1,160 pounds) of the pills hidden in a shipment of pasta heading to Saudi Arabia. The smugglers had sprayed pepper over the pills to distract sniffer dogs, the statement said.
Walsh said the smuggling of amphetamines from Syria has a wide ranging impact on Europe, Africa and Asia and is obstructing efforts to resolve the country’s lengthy civil war, while contributing to deteriorating relations with Gulf states. He spoke at a conference organized by the Washington-based Atlantic Center earlier this month.
The US has imposed various sanctions on Syrian government officials and businesses linked to President Bashar Assad, whom it blames for much of the country’s decade-old conflict.
Arab countries have been making moves to re-engage the Assad government after years of boycott following the war’s outbreak. Experts say a crackdown on drug smuggling would be key for Arab rapprochement with Syria.
Over 5 million Captagon pills hidden in a shipment of pomegranate from Lebanon were seized in Saudi Arabia in April.
In response, the Saudis banned Lebanese produce from going to or even transiting through the Kingdom, a blow to Lebanon’s exporters.
Lebanese farmers denied the pomegranate was Lebanese, saying the shipment came from Syria.
Jordan has also seized drugs smuggled from Syria, including a shipment transported by a drone across the border in October.