How water scarcity is disrupting agriculture, worsening food insecurity in the Middle East

Special How water scarcity is disrupting agriculture, worsening food insecurity in the Middle East
A shepherd leads his herd in the almost dried Doueisat (Duwaysat) dam outside the town of al-Diriyah in Syria's northern Idlib province on November 9, 2021. (AFP/File photo)
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Updated 16 October 2023
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How water scarcity is disrupting agriculture, worsening food insecurity in the Middle East

How water scarcity is disrupting agriculture, worsening food insecurity in the Middle East
  • On World Food Day, experts say agri-tech and better water management can make farming more sustainable
  • Solutions are needed to meet nutritional demands of a growing population amid a dwindling supply of freshwater

DUBAI: Demand for food is fast outstripping production capacity in many parts of the world, raising the specter of shortage and hunger as overfarming of mineral-rich soils leads to land degradation and exhaustion of finite freshwater sources.

In the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), water is being referred to as the “new blue gold” as rivers and natural aquifers get rapidly depleted amid a warming climate and overexploitation of reserves, depriving farmers of the means to irrigate their crops and hydrate their livestock.

Projections by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) show that feeding a global population of 9.1 billion people by 2050 would require raising overall food production by around 70 percent, resulting in even greater water use.




Infographic from the FAO's "How to Feed the World in 2050" report.

Around 28 percent of the MENA region’s estimated population of 350 million is entirely dependent on agriculture for their livelihoods. In fact, farming accounts for 13 percent of the region’s gross domestic product and plays a crucial role in building food system resilience.

“The Arab region is food insecure and relies heavily on imports,” Peter Blezard, founder and director of UK-based Engage Crop Solutions, which specializes in crop enhancement and nutritional products in 26 countries worldwide, told Arab News.

“This is because growers face significant challenges due to the heat, desertification, aridity and drought that define the region” — issues, he says, that are ultimately the result of water scarcity.

It is, perhaps, no surprise that the UN has chosen water as the theme for this year’s World Food Day, which falls on Oct. 16, emphasizing its vital role in food production, nutrition and sustainable development.

 



Antonio Guterres, the UN secretary-general, has cited sustainable management of water for agriculture and food production as an essential factor in ending hunger, achieving the UN Sustainable Development Goals ahead of 2030, and preserving water for future generations.

About 70 percent of global freshwater use is linked to agriculture — a figure that is much higher in some parts of the Arab world at 92 percent, with the aridity of the climate forcing farmers to continue with unsustainable practices.

“Around 40 percent of global food is produced in artificially irrigated areas and these irrigated farms can use 300 percent more water than the crop needs,” said Blezard.

IN NUMBERS

780 million People worldwide who are going hungry.

50 million Children at risk of death from severe wasting.

84 million People in the MENA region reliant on agriculture.

70% Current global freshwater use linked to agriculture.

9.1 billion Projected global population by 2050.

70% Required increase in food production to meet demand by 2050.

With farmers already consuming a huge proportion of the region’s available freshwater, Blezard says the Arab world’s ambitions of becoming self-sufficient in food production will only increase the demand for water.

“Growers and innovators are responding to the challenge, but this is a major issue as many fear the water table will dry up if we continue to extract water at the current rate for agriculture,” he said.

So, how can global food production be doubled to keep pace with population growth in a world of finite freshwater?




The good news is that there are crop technologies that helped reduce wastage of crop water. Engage Crop Solutions, for example, has proven that a 50 percent reduction on water use is possible without any loss in quality of growth of a crop. (Infographic from engagecropsolutions.com)

“The conversation must move away from the looming threat of our water running out and, instead, start to focus on the solutions and what we must do to preserve our precious water resources,” said Blezard.

“The challenge is greatest for agriculture and that is why growers must take the lead, finding new ways to reduce water use and taking advantage of new technologies and more efficient irrigation and cooling systems.”

Roma Vora, a farm manager at Aranya Farms in Abu Dhabi, told Arab News she is constantly exploring new technologies to help improve water quality and efficiency on her farm.

“In agriculture, the lack of water can significantly decrease yield and affect its quality, and it’s a challenge we have to manage meticulously in organic farming,” said Vora.




Drip irrigation remains the most commonly used system in the Arabian Peninsula. (Shutterstock)

The effects of shifts in temperatures and weather patterns have already caused Vora to rethink farming practices. “We usually begin our first harvest mid-October, but given the high-heat conditions, we are expecting our harvest only by early November,” she said.

She said soil-based organic farming offers many environmental benefits, including conservation and biodiversity, which are essential for ecological balance.

While organic farming is “resource-intensive,” Vora believes it is still much more sustainable than importing every item of food.

“The focus should be maintained on ‘local’ farming, and that would pave the way for a healthier, more resilient future for the Arab world,” she said.

A study by Kuwait Financial Center’s research arm, Marmore, assessing the state of the Gulf Cooperation Council countries’ food security, says the area has sufficient financial buffers to ensure continuous food imports, but its reliance on imports makes it vulnerable to supply-chain disruptions.




Aside from finding ways to cut production costs of food, the cost of shipping is also a challenge that need to be addressed worldwide. (AFP file photo)

“The study stated that in January 2022, food shipping costs to the country reportedly increased tenfold, from $1,400 to $14,000 per ton, while food inflation in March 2023 was recorded at 7.46 percent year-over-year, rising from 7 percent year-over-year in the previous month,” said Blezard.

The global pandemic, conflicts in Ukraine and elsewhere, rising freight costs, and protectionist controls on commodities such as rice and sugar have exposed the vulnerability of global supply chains and food systems in recent years, causing the price of essential foodstuffs to rise and stockpiles to dwindle.

Now the growing scale and frequency of extreme weather events, such as drought and flash flooding, are adding to those pressures.




Lebanon has been hit by food shortages since it experienced a debt default in 2020. (AFP file photo)

“Rising energy prices and production costs for most of the world’s farmers, coupled with adverse weather conditions in a lot of countries, will reduce the global production of certain foods,” said Blezard.

In response, GCC nations, including the UAE, Qatar and Kuwait, have implemented long-term security measures to guard against systemic shocks, adopting strategies such as boosting domestic production, diversifying imports, reducing waste, and embracing agri-tech.

Examples of such agri-tech models include vertical farming, and digital tools that enhance supply chains and increase food production. Given the aridity of the region, such innovations are essential for expanding local production sustainably.

“In response to unfavorable climate conditions for agriculture, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have also invested in farmlands overseas,” said Blezard.




Saudi Arabia's first of a kind indoor vertical farm, a joint venture agreement between the Kingdom's Public Investment Fund and the US-based AeroFarms, expects an annual production capacity of up to 1.1 million kilos of agricultural crops. (Supplied)

As the GCC area imports 80-90 percent of its food, shoring up existing supply chains could make the system more resilient.

Soham Chokshi, CEO and co-founder of Shipsy, a smart logistics management platform, said supply chains can be made more efficient and agile by digitalizing import and cross-border logistics processes.

“Ensuring real-time visibility of container movement, using analytics and artificial intelligence to manage logistics failures and risks proactively, and automatically partnering with logistics service providers with expertise in managing food supply chains can make a winning difference,” Chokshi told Arab News.

Additionally, by leveraging a “software as a service” smart logistics management platform, governments and businesses can facilitate communication and data sharing among supply-chain partners, improving coordination and responsiveness to disruptions.

“Supply chain leaders can use data-driven inventory management to maintain optimal stock levels, reducing overstocking or under-stocking issues,” said Chokshi. “This ensures that food products are available when needed, reducing waste and improving efficiency.”

To address this issue, governments in the MENA region are establishing new ministries tasked with creating various agri-tech development teams.

“The aim for many countries is to be self-reliant on food by 2050, but to also develop a strategy that will promote world leading innovation in food security,” said Blezard.

Opinion

This section contains relevant reference points, placed in (Opinion field)

These ministries or authorities will oversee food security, food safety, and biosecurity in the region, with their primary responsibility being to establish an efficient food security governance model.

In turn, this model will look to facilitate global agricultural trade, diversify international food sources, and enhance sustainable technology-enabled domestic food supply throughout the value chain, Blezard said.

Additionally, according to him, the model will support the establishment of new businesses through investments in the region. However, to sustain this initiative, the creation of globally competitive tax rates and trade zones is crucial.

This would attract mainstream venture capital firms and banks, encouraging the development of new businesses equipped with advanced infrastructure for handling large-volume commodities.

“This model will facilitate global agri-business trade and diversify international food sources, enhancing sustainable technology-enabled domestic food supply across the value chain,” Blezard said.

 


Gazans flood road north after ‘open checkpoint’ rumors

Gazans flood road north after ‘open checkpoint’ rumors
Updated 4 sec ago
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Gazans flood road north after ‘open checkpoint’ rumors

Gazans flood road north after ‘open checkpoint’ rumors
  • Israel has killed more than 33,686 Palestinians, according to Gaza’s Health Ministry
  • More than 1.5 million Palestinians have taken refuge in the southern city of Rafah, according to the UN

GAZA CITY: Thousands of Gazans flooded the coast road north on Sunday after hearing that several people managed to cross a closed checkpoint toward Gaza City despite Israel denying it was open.
An AFP journalist saw mothers holding their children’s hands and families piling onto donkey carts with their luggage as they journeyed. They hoped to cross a military checkpoint on Al-Rashid road south of Gaza City, but the Israeli army said that reports the route was open were “not true.”
On the other side, desperate families waited for their loved ones in the rubble of the battered main city in the Palestinian territory.
Mahmoud Awdeh said he was waiting for his wife, who has been in the southern city of Khan Younis since the start of the war on Oct. 7.
“She told me over the phone that people are leaving the southern part and heading to the north,” Awdeh said.
“She told me she’s waiting at the checkpoint until the army agrees to let her head to the north,” he said, hoping she could cross safely.
During the day, rumors also spread that the Israeli army was allowing women, children, and men over 50 to go to the north, a claim denied by the army.
Since Israel assaulted Gaza following the Oct. 7 Hamas attack, the army has besieged the territory, telling Gazans to leave some areas and preventing them from moving across the narrow strip.
More than 1.5 million Palestinians have taken refuge in the southern city of Rafah, according to the UN.
Several Gazans said they came under attack on the route, and AFP footage showed people ducking for cover. The Palestinian official news agency Wafa said Israeli forces “bomb(ed) displaced Palestinians as they were trying to return to the north of Gaza Strip through Al-Rasheed Street.”
Wafa shared a video on X, showing people running away from a blast.
Nour, a displaced Gazan, said: “When we arrived at the (Israeli) checkpoint, they would let women pass or stop them, but they shot at men, so we had to return; we didn’t want to die.”
AFP has approached the Israeli military for comment.
Elsewhere in Gaza, the fighting continued on Sunday after Iran launched a huge drone and missile attack on Israel.
In Rafah on Sunday, Palestinians said Iran’s attack on Israel underwhelmed them.
“The Iranian response came so late, after 190 days of war,” Khaled Al Nems said. “You can see our suffering.”
“Their response is too little too late,” he added.
Walid Al Kurdi, a displaced Palestinian living in Rafah, said “Iran’s attack on Israel is not our business.”
“The only thing we care about is returning to our homes,” he said.
“We are waiting for the coming 48 hours to see if (Israel) responds to Iran or if they are playing with us and want to distract attention away from Rafah.”
Israel has said it plans to send ground forces into Rafah to eradicate remaining Hamas militants there.

 


Israeli airstrikes, artillery reach deep into Bekaa Valley as tensions soar

Israeli airstrikes, artillery reach deep into Bekaa Valley as tensions soar
Updated 8 min 36 sec ago
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Israeli airstrikes, artillery reach deep into Bekaa Valley as tensions soar

Israeli airstrikes, artillery reach deep into Bekaa Valley as tensions soar
  • Hezbollah modifies its tactics in south Lebanon amidst the backdrop of Iranian attack on Israel

BEIRUT: Israeli forces on Sunday struck a Hezbollah site in Lebanon’s east near the Syrian border as tensions soared following Iran’s direct attack on Israel.

Shelling heavily targeted Lebanese border villages and the Bekaa Valley on Saturday night, as the Israeli military carried out raids on Khiam, Kfarkila, and Odaisseh.

Artillery shelling also targeted Houla, Wadi Saluki, the vicinity of Deir Mimas, and areas along the Litani River.

The raid on Khiam resulted in the death of one person, and many civilians were injured in other villages.

BACKGROUND

Hezbollah has exchanged near-daily cross-border fire with Israel since the Palestinian group attacked southern Israel on October 7, triggering war in the Gaza Strip.

A missile exploded near a Lebanese Army intelligence office in the Jdeidet Marjayoun village.

The missile caused significant material damage to the facility and nearby houses, but miraculously, nobody was injured.

On Sunday morning, Israeli warplanes targeted the park in Jabal Safi adjacent to Jbaa and the outskirts of a village in Iqlim Al-Tuffah.

A sonic boom caused by missile fire damaged several houses, shops, and schools in Jbaa, while Israeli planes also targeted areas deep inside central Bekaa, specifically a three-floor building between the Saraain and Nabi Chit villages. Additionally, military aircraft were seen flying over Baalbek and its surroundings.

The Israeli military said that it struck “an important weapon manufacturing site for Hezbollah in Nabi Chit.”

Hezbollah’s own attacks were limited to Israeli military outposts repeatedly targeted since the outbreak of hostilities, including the air and missile defense headquarters at the Kaylaa outpost in the Golan Heights, which Hezbollah targeted with dozens of Katyusha missiles.

Following the Iranian attack on Israel overnight, Hezbollah’s supporters rallied in Beirut’s southern suburbs, holding the party’s banner and chanting slogans in support of Tehran.

News that the majority of the Iranian drones and missiles were intercepted before reaching Israeli airspace, however, prompted criticism of the attack online.

Beirut's Rafic Hariri International Airport closed for six hours after news of the impending attack broke on Saturday evening.

Lebanese people flocked to gas stations to fill their tanks in case escalating tensions affected supplies in the coming days.

The representative of the country’s fuel distributors, Fadi Abu Shaqra, said that “fuel is secured, and the quantities are sufficient for (the next several) days.”

He said gasoline and diesel were available, and there was no need for the public to worry about shortages.

Caretaker Public Works and Transportation Minister Ali Hamia said the airport will gradually return to work as normal.

“Closing the airport was a precautionary measure. It took into account the safety and security of people arriving and departing,” Hamia said.

“At 7 a.m., we suspended the closure decision. The airspace was opened, and work will gradually return to its normal course.”

Middle East Airlines said it had rescheduled a number of flights and announced the successful departure of flights to London and Dubai.

 

 


Egypt’s FM expresses need for restraint in calls to foreign ministers of Iran, Israel

Israeli Air Force heavy lift military transport helicopters fly over in the southern Negev desert on April 14, 2024. (AFP)
Israeli Air Force heavy lift military transport helicopters fly over in the southern Negev desert on April 14, 2024. (AFP)
Updated 24 min 13 sec ago
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Egypt’s FM expresses need for restraint in calls to foreign ministers of Iran, Israel

Israeli Air Force heavy lift military transport helicopters fly over in the southern Negev desert on April 14, 2024. (AFP)
  • Shoukry called on his Iranian and Israeli counterparts “to exercise utmost self-restraint and refrain from provocations”

CAIRO: Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry expressed the need for restraint in phone calls with the foreign ministers of Iran and Israel on Sunday, Egypt said.
Shoukry called on his Iranian and Israeli counterparts “to exercise utmost self-restraint and refrain from provocations that would increase tension and instability in the region,” a foreign ministry statement said.
Egypt is ready to intensify its efforts to defuse the current crisis, “which has begun taking a dangerous turn as it coincides with the crisis in the Gaza Strip and adds tension to other hot spots in the region,” the statement added.
Shoukry also held a call on Sunday with US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken to discuss “what has become a serious threat to the security and stability” of the Middle East after Iran launched drones and missile on Israel early on Sunday.


Cyprus suspends processing of Syrian asylum applications

Cyprus suspends processing of Syrian asylum applications
Updated 36 min 11 sec ago
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Cyprus suspends processing of Syrian asylum applications

Cyprus suspends processing of Syrian asylum applications
  • According to Cyprus Interior Ministry statistics, some 2,140 people arrived by boat to EU-member Cyprus between Jan. 1 and April 4 of this year, the vast majority of them Syrian nationals departing from Lebanon

NICOSIA: Cyprus has said it’s suspending processing all asylum applications by Syrian nationals because large numbers of refugees from the war-torn country continue to reach the island nation by boat, primarily from Lebanon.
In a written statement, the Cypriot government said the suspension is also partly because of ongoing efforts to get the EU to redesignate some areas of the war-torn country as safe zones to enable repatriations.
The drastic step comes in the wake of Cypriot President Nicos Christodoulides’ visit to Lebanon early last week to appeal to authorities there to stop departures of migrant-laden boats from their shores. The request comes in light of a 27-fold increase in migrant arrivals to Cyprus so far this year over the same period last year.
According to Cyprus Interior Ministry statistics, some 2,140 people arrived by boat to EU-member Cyprus between Jan. 1 and April 4 of this year, the vast majority of them Syrian nationals departing from Lebanon. In contrast, only 78 people arrived by boat to the island nation in the corresponding period last year.
Last Monday, Christodoulides and Lebanese caretaker Prime Minister Najib Mikati called on the EU to provide financial support to help cash-strapped Lebanon stop migrants from reaching Cyprus.
Just days prior to his Lebanon trip, the Cypriot president said that he had personally asked EU Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen to intercede with Lebanese authorities to curb migrant boat departures.
Although the EU should provide “substantial” EU support to Lebanon, Christodoulides said any financial help should be linked to how effectively Lebanese authorities monitor their coastline and prevent boat departures.

 


Jordan PM says escalation in region would lead to ‘dangerous paths’

This video grab from AFPTV taken on April 14, 2024 shows explosions lighting up Jerusalem sky during Iranian attack on Israel.
This video grab from AFPTV taken on April 14, 2024 shows explosions lighting up Jerusalem sky during Iranian attack on Israel.
Updated 14 April 2024
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Jordan PM says escalation in region would lead to ‘dangerous paths’

This video grab from AFPTV taken on April 14, 2024 shows explosions lighting up Jerusalem sky during Iranian attack on Israel.
  • Jordan’s King Abdullah also told US President Joe Biden in a phone call on Sunday that Jordan “won’t be an arena for a regional war”

AMMAN: Jordan’s Prime Minister Bisher Khasawneh said on Sunday any escalation in the region would lead to “dangerous paths” and that there was a need to reduce escalation by all parties.
In remarks to the cabinet, Khasawneh said the country’s armed forces would confront any attempt by any party that sought to endanger the kingdom’s security.
“There is need for all parties to act responsibly and exercise utmost degree of self restraint... and not be dragged toward any escalation that will no doubt have dangerous consequences,” Khasawneh said.
Two regional intelligences sources said US air defenses along with support from the UK and France had joined Jordan on Saturday to down dozens of Iranian drones and missiles that were flying over the country toward Jerusalem and across a wide range of targets in Israel.
Iranian drones that came from the direction of Iraq and flew over southern Jordan and the city of Aqaba that were heading to Israel’s Eilat port were also intercepted, they added.
“The army will respond to anything that will jeopardize the security and safety of the kingdom and the sanctity of its airspace and territory in the face of any danger from any party with all the available means,” Khasawneh said.
Jordan’s King Abdullah also told US President Joe Biden in a phone call on Sunday that Jordan “won’t be an arena for a regional war,” adding any “escalation by Israel would only widen the circle of conflict,” state-owned al Mamlaka public broadcaster said.
Jordan neighbors Syria and Iraq – both countries where Iranian proxy forces operate – and is also next door to Israel and the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
It has watched Israel’s war against the Palestinian group Hamas, another Iranian ally, with rising alarm.
Late last year, Amman asked Washington to deploy Patriot air defense systems to Jordan to bolster its border defenses.
Officials say the Pentagon had since increased its military aid to the kingdom, a major regional ally, where hundreds of US troops are based and hold extensive exercises with the Jordanian army throughout the year.