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


Help build solid basis for Libyan elections and don’t fixate on dates, Security Council told

Stephanie Williams, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’s special adviser on Libya, recently reiterated the importance of holding elections “in the shortest possible time frame.” (Reuters/File Photo)
Stephanie Williams, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’s special adviser on Libya, recently reiterated the importance of holding elections “in the shortest possible time frame.” (Reuters/File Photo)
Updated 25 January 2022

Help build solid basis for Libyan elections and don’t fixate on dates, Security Council told

Stephanie Williams, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’s special adviser on Libya, recently reiterated the importance of holding elections “in the shortest possible time frame.” (Reuters/File Photo)
  • Lawyer and activist Elham Saudi condemned “weak” vetting that resulted in candidates implicated in corruption and crimes against humanity being cleared to stand
  • US envoy highlighted concerns about deteriorating human rights situation in the country and continuing reports of violence and abuse targeting migrants, asylum seekers and refugees

NEW YORK: Mediators need to take into account the lessons learned in Libya in the past two years and focus on “creating milestones” for the country’s political transition, rather than fixating on the time frame involved, according to Elham Saudi, co-founder and director of Lawyers for Justice in Libya.

These milestones include an electoral law, a code for conducting elections, and a solid constitutional basis “that appropriately sequences presidential and legislative elections in line with the broader road map to complete (the) transition effectively,” he said.

Addressing the UN Security Council on Monday during its regular meeting about developments in Libya, Saudi said that when these steps are implemented, elections will naturally follow and will be “far easier to manage, protect and successfully deliver.”

Stephanie Williams, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’s special adviser on Libya, recently reiterated the importance of holding elections “in the shortest possible time frame.” She said this month that “it is possible, and needed, to have elections before the end of June.”

However, Saudi said that “focusing on the dates for the elections instead of a clear process to facilitate them risks once again compromising due process for the sake of perceived political expediency.”

Growing polarization among political powers in the country and disputes over key aspects of the electoral process — including shortcomings in the legal framework for the elections, contradictory court rulings on candidacies, and political and security concerns as cited by the High National commission for Elections — resulted in the postponement of the elections, which had been scheduled to take place on Dec. 24 last year.

Saudi reminded members of the Security Council that “accountability is a prerequisite to political progress. Poorly defined and fundamentally weak vetting criteria applied to candidates applying for elections resulted in individuals implicated in corruption or crimes against humanity and human rights violations, including persons who have been indicted by the ICC (International Criminal Court), being accepted as candidates.”

Following the postponement of polling in December, Libya’s House of Representatives established a “road map committee” to develop a new path toward national elections. The committee will present its first report for debate on Tuesday in Tripoli.

Rosemary DiCarlo, the UN’s under-secretary-general for political and peacebuilding affairs, welcomed what she described as renewed efforts by Libya’s Presidency Council to advance national reconciliation but lamented the political uncertainty in the run-up to the elections. which she said has “negatively impacted the overall security situation, including in Tripoli, resulting in shifting alliances among armed groups affiliated with certain presidential candidates.”

She expressed concern about the human rights situation in Libya, citing “incidents of elections-related violence and attacks based on political affiliation, as well as threats and violence against members of the judiciary involved in proceedings on eligibility of electoral candidates, and against journalists, activists and individuals expressing political views.”

DiCarlo added: “Such incidents are an obstacle to creating a conducive environment for free, fair, peaceful and credible elections.”

Taher El-Sonni, Libya’s permanent representative to the UN, told the Security Council that while some people had been surprised by the postponement of elections, it had been widely expected.

“In light of the crisis of trust and the absence of a constitution for the country, or a consensual constitutional rule as advocated by most political forces now, it will be very difficult to conduct these elections successfully because the elections are supposed to be a means of political participation and not a means of predominance and exclusion, and a means to support stability and not an end in itself that may open the way for a new conflict,” he said.

El-Sonni called on the UN to offer more “serious and effective” support to the electoral process and send teams to assess the requirements on the ground.

“This would be a clear message to all about the seriousness of the international community in achieving elections that everyone aspires to, without questioning it or its results,” he said.

The Libyan envoy invited the council to “actively contribute” to the processes of national reconciliation and transitional justice, “two concomitant and essential tracks that have unfortunately been lost during the past years, although they are the main basis for the success of any political solution that leads to the stability of the country.”

He also once again called on the African Union to support his country’s efforts in this area.

Ambassador Jeffrey DeLaurentis, senior advisor for special political affairs to the US mission at the UN, said it is time for the wishes of the millions of Libyans who have registered to vote to be respected.

“It is time to move beyond backroom deals between a small circle of powerful individuals backed by armed groups, carving up spoils and protecting their positions,” he said “The Libyan people are ready to decide their own future.

“Those vying to lead Libya must see that the Libyan people will only accept leadership empowered by elections and that they will only tolerate so much delay.”

Like many other ambassadors at the meeting, DeLaurentis also addressed the migrant crisis and reports of violence and abuses directed at migrants, asylum seekers and refugees in Libya.

“Libyan authorities must close illicit detention centers, end arbitrary detention practices and permit unhindered humanitarian access to affected populations,” he said.


Coalition in Yemen begins military operations in Sanaa

Coalition in Yemen begins military operations in Sanaa
Updated 25 January 2022

Coalition in Yemen begins military operations in Sanaa

Coalition in Yemen begins military operations in Sanaa
  • More than 50 Houthis killed in operations targeting Marib and Al-Bayda

RIYADH: The Coalition to Restore Legitimacy in Yemen said on Monday that it had began “military operations” against “legitimate targets” in the capital, Sanaa, Saudi state TV reported.
The coalition said the operation is in response to threats and out of military necessity to protect civilians from hostile attacks.
The Iran-backed Houthi militia launched missiles toward Saudi Arabia and the UAE earlier on Monday, sparking widespread condemnation from the international community.
Meanwhile, the coalition said it carried out 14 operations targeting the Houthi militia in Marib and Al-Bayda during the past 24 hours, killing more than 50 fighters and destroying nine military vehicles.


US ‘prepared to meet directly’ and ‘urgently’ with Iran on nuclear issue

US ‘prepared to meet directly’ and ‘urgently’ with Iran on nuclear issue
Updated 25 January 2022

US ‘prepared to meet directly’ and ‘urgently’ with Iran on nuclear issue

US ‘prepared to meet directly’ and ‘urgently’ with Iran on nuclear issue
  • The comments came after Iran said it will consider direct talks with the US during ongoing negotiations in Vienna

WASHINGTON: The US State Department on Monday repeated that it remains open to meeting with Iranian officials directly to discuss the nuclear deal and other issues after Iran’s foreign minister said Tehran would consider this but had made no decisions.
Speaking at a briefing, State Department spokesman Ned Price also said the US had not made Iran’s releasing four Americans a condition of reaching an agreement for both nations to resume compliance with the nuclear deal, saying that achieving such an agreement was an uncertain proposition.
Earlier on Monday, the State Department said the US was prepared to hold direct talks with Iran after Tehran said it would consider such an option.
“We are prepared to meet directly,” a State Department spokesperson said.
“We have long held the position that it would be more productive to engage with Iran directly, on both JCPOA negotiations and other issues,” the spokesperson said, referring to the nuclear deal between Iran and major powers.
The spokesperson said that meeting directly would allow “more efficient communication” needed to reach an understanding on what is needed to resuscitate the 2015 deal.
“Given the pace of Iran’s nuclear advances, we are almost out of time to reach an understanding on mutual return to full implementation of the JCPOA,” the official said.
The comments came after Iran said Monday it will consider direct talks with the United States during ongoing negotiations in Vienna aimed at restoring the deal.
“Iran is not currently talking with the US directly,” Hossein Amir-Abdollahian said in televised remarks.
“But, if during the negotiation process we get to a point that reaching a good agreement with solid guarantees requires a level of talks with the US, we will not ignore that in our work schedule,” he added.
(With AFP and Reuters)


‘Horror scenes’ in Syrian refugee camps amid ‘extremely cold winter’: UN official

‘Horror scenes’ in Syrian refugee camps amid ‘extremely cold winter’: UN official
Updated 24 January 2022

‘Horror scenes’ in Syrian refugee camps amid ‘extremely cold winter’: UN official

‘Horror scenes’ in Syrian refugee camps amid ‘extremely cold winter’: UN official
  • ‘No one should have to live in these conditions,’ Mark Cutts tells briefing attended by Arab News
  • Nearly 3m people internally displaced in northern Syria, most of them women and children

LONDON: Brutal winter conditions in northern Syria have ushered in mass-scale suffering for 2.8 million internally displaced persons, a top UN humanitarian official warned on Monday.

“We’re extremely concerned about the situation there,” Mark Cutts, the UN’s deputy regional humanitarian coordinator for Syria, said in a briefing attended by Arab News.

The IDPs, he added, are “some of the most vulnerable people in the world,” the majority of them living in temporary camps and tents.

“During this extremely cold weather, we’ve seen some real horror scenes in the last few days — about 1,000 tents have either collapsed completely or been very badly damaged as a result of heavy snow,” said Cutts, adding that temperatures have dropped to as low as -7 degrees centigrade.

About 100,000 people have been affected by the heavy snow, while 150,000 more have been affected by freezing conditions and heavy rain.

“These are people who’ve been through a lot in the past few years. They’ve fled from one place to another. The bombs have followed them. Many of the hospitals and schools in northwest Syria have been destroyed in the 10 years of war,” said Cutts, adding that what he and his team are seeing in camps now is a “real disaster zone.”

He said: “Our humanitarian workers have been pulling people out from under their collapsed tents … They’ve been clearing snow from tents with their bare hands.”

Children, the elderly and the disabled are suffering the most from the conditions, added Cutts, who appealed to the international community to “do more, to recognize the scale of the crisis, to help us get these people out of tents and into safer, more dignified temporary shelter.”

In a final plea, he said: “It’s absolutely unacceptable that you’ve got 1.7 million people living in camps in these appalling conditions — most of them are women and children and elderly people.

“These civilians are stranded in a warzone, and now, on top of that, they’re dealing with temperatures below zero. No one should have to live in these conditions.”


Iran: ‘Possible’ to agree on prisoners, nuclear deal

Iran: ‘Possible’ to agree on prisoners, nuclear deal
Updated 24 January 2022

Iran: ‘Possible’ to agree on prisoners, nuclear deal

Iran: ‘Possible’ to agree on prisoners, nuclear deal

TEHRAN: Tehran on Monday said it is “possible” to reach an agreement on the two issues of Iran-US prisoners’ release and the Vienna talks to restore the 2015 nuclear deal.

“They are two different paths, but if the other party (the US) has the determination, there is the possibility that we reach a reliable and lasting agreement in both of them in the shortest time,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said during his weekly press conference.

Khatibzadeh’s comments came in reaction to remarks made by the US envoy for Iran, Robert Malley, who on Sunday said it is unlikely that Washington would strike an agreement unless Tehran releases four US citizens.

BACKGROUND

The four US citizens held in Iran are Iranian-American businessman Siamak Namazi, 50, and his father Baquer, 85, as well as environmentalist Morad Tahbaz, 66, and businessman Emad Sharqi, 57.

“Iran has not accepted any precondition from day one of the negotiations,” Khatibzadeh said.

He added that “the negotiations are complicated enough, and should not get more complex with complicated remarks.”