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.

 


Wars in Gaza and Sudan ‘drive hunger crisis affecting 280 million worldwide’

Wars in Gaza and Sudan ‘drive hunger crisis affecting 280 million worldwide’
Updated 24 April 2024
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Wars in Gaza and Sudan ‘drive hunger crisis affecting 280 million worldwide’

Wars in Gaza and Sudan ‘drive hunger crisis affecting 280 million worldwide’
  • New report on global food insecurity says outlook for 2024 is ‘bleak’

JEDDAH: More than 280 million people worldwide suffered from acute hunger last year in a food security crisis driven by conflicts in Gaza and Sudan, UN agencies and development groups said on Wednesday.

Economic shocks also added to the number of victims, which grew by 24 million compared with 2022, according to a report by the Food Security Information Network.

The report, which called the global outlook for this year “bleak,” is produced for an international alliance of UN agencies, the EU and governmental and non-governmental bodies.

Food insecurity is defined as when populations face food deprivation that threatens lives or livelihoods, regardless of the causes or length of time. More geographical areas experienced “new or intensified shocks” and there was a “marked deterioration in key food crisis contexts such as Sudan and the Gaza Strip,” said Fleur Wouterse, a senior official at the UN’s Food and Agricultue Organization.

Since the first report by the Global Food Crisis Network covering 2016, the number of food-insecure people has risen from 108 million to 282 million, Wouterse said. The share of the population affected within the areas concerned had doubled from 11 percent to 22 percent, she said.

Protracted major food crises are ongoing in Afghanistan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Syria and Yemen. “In a world of plenty, children are starving to death,” UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said.

“War, climate chaos and a cost-of-living crisis, combined with inadequate action, mean that almost 300 million people faced acute food crisis in 2023. Funding is not keeping pace with need.”

According to the report, situations of conflict or insecurity have become the main cause of acute hunger. For 2024, progress would depend on the end of hostilities, said Wouterse, who said aid could rapidly alleviate the crisis in Gaza or Sudan, for example, once humanitarian access to the areas was possible.
 


Yemen’s Houthis say they targeted American and Israeli ships

Yemen’s Houthis say they targeted American and Israeli ships
Updated 24 April 2024
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Yemen’s Houthis say they targeted American and Israeli ships

Yemen’s Houthis say they targeted American and Israeli ships
  • The Iran-aligned group said it targeted the US ship Maersk Yorktown, an American destroyer in the Gulf of Aden and Israeli ship MSC Veracruz in the Indian Ocean
  • “The Yemeni armed forces confirm they will continue to prevent Israeli navigation,” Sarea said

CAIRO/DUBAI: Houthi militants in Yemen have attacked what they said were two American ships and an Israeli vessel, the group’s military spokesman said on Wednesday, the first such attack in more than two weeks.
The Iran-aligned group said it targeted the US ship Maersk Yorktown, an American destroyer in the Gulf of Aden and Israeli ship MSC Veracruz in the Indian Ocean, the spokesman, Yahya Sarea, said in a televised speech.
Yemen’s Houthis have been attacking ships in the Red Sea region since November in what they say is a campaign of solidarity with Palestinians fighting Israel in Gaza.
“The Yemeni armed forces confirm they will continue to prevent Israeli navigation or any navigation heading to the ports of occupied Palestine in the Red and Arabian Seas, as well as in the Indian Ocean,” Sarea said on Wednesday.
Separately, British maritime security firm Ambrey said earlier on Wednesday that it was aware of an incident southwest of the port city of Aden, an area where the Houthis often target ships they say are linked to Israel or the United States.
The vessel reported an “explosion in the water” approximately 72 nautical miles east-southeast of Djibouti, an updated advisory from Ambrey said.
Houthi attacks have disrupted global shipping through the Suez Canal, forcing firms to re-route to longer and more expensive journeys around southern Africa. The United States and Britain have launched strikes on Houthi targets in Yemen.


Iraq hangs 11 convicted of ‘terrorism’: security, health sources

Iraq hangs 11 convicted of ‘terrorism’: security, health sources
Updated 24 April 2024
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Iraq hangs 11 convicted of ‘terrorism’: security, health sources

Iraq hangs 11 convicted of ‘terrorism’: security, health sources
  • Under Iraqi law, terrorism and murder offenses are punishable by death, and execution decrees must be signed by the president
  • A security source in Iraq’s southern Dhi Qar province told AFP that 11 “terrorists from the Daesh group” were executed by hanging at a prison in Nasiriyah

NASIRIYAH, Iraq: Iraqi authorities have executed at least 11 people convicted of “terrorism” this week, security and health sources said Wednesday, with rights group Amnesty International condemning an “alarming lack of transparency.”
Under Iraqi law, terrorism and murder offenses are punishable by death, and execution decrees must be signed by the president.
A security source in Iraq’s southern Dhi Qar province told AFP that 11 “terrorists from the Daesh group” were executed by hanging at a prison in the city of Nasiriyah, “under the supervision of a justice ministry team.”
A local medical source confirmed that the health department had received the bodies of 11 executed people.
They were hanged on Monday “under Article 4 of the anti-terrorism law,” the source added, requesting anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue.
All 11 were from Salahaddin province and the bodies of seven had been returned to their families, the medical official said.
Iraqi courts have handed down hundreds of death and life sentences in recent years for people convicted of membership in “a terrorist group,” an offense that carries capital punishment regardless of whether the defendant had been an active fighter.
Iraq has been criticized for trials denounced by rights groups as hasty, with confessions sometimes obtained under torture.
Amnesty in a statement on Wednesday condemned the latest hangings for “overly broad and vague terrorism charges.”
It said a total of 13 men were executed on Monday, including 11 who had been “convicted on the basis of their affiliation to the so-called Daesh armed group.”
The two others, arrested in 2008, “were convicted of terrorism-related offenses under the Penal Code after a grossly unfair trial,” Amnesty said citing their lawyer.


Biden says Israel must allow aid to Palestinians ‘without delay’

Biden says Israel must allow aid to Palestinians ‘without delay’
Updated 24 April 2024
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Biden says Israel must allow aid to Palestinians ‘without delay’

Biden says Israel must allow aid to Palestinians ‘without delay’
  • “We’re going to immediately secure that aid and surge it,” Biden said
  • “Israel must make sure all this aid reaches the Palestinians in Gaza without delay“

WASHINGTON: President Joe Biden on Wednesday demanded that new humanitarian aid be allowed to immediately reach Palestinians in the Gaza Strip as key US ally Israel fights Hamas there.
“We’re going to immediately secure that aid and surge it... including food, medical supplies, clean water,” Biden said after signing a massive military aid bill for Israel and Ukraine, which also included $1 billion in humanitarian aid for Gaza.
“Israel must make sure all this aid reaches the Palestinians in Gaza without delay,” he said.
US-Israel relations have been strained by Israel’s conduct of the war in Gaza and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plan to send troops into the southern Gazan city of Rafah, where 1.5 million people are sheltering, many in makeshift encampments.
“This bill significantly — significantly — increases humanitarian assistance we’re sending to the innocent people of Gaza who are suffering badly,” Biden said.
“They’re suffering the consequences of this war that Hamas started, and we’ve been working intently for months to get as much aid to Gaza as possible.”


Israel hits Lebanese border towns with 14 missiles

Israel hits Lebanese border towns with 14 missiles
Updated 24 April 2024
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Israel hits Lebanese border towns with 14 missiles

Israel hits Lebanese border towns with 14 missiles
  • Hezbollah targets Israeli settlements in retaliation for Hanin civilian deaths
  • Hezbollah said it attacked the Shomera settlement with dozens of Katyusha rockets

BEIRUT: Clashes between Hezbollah and Israeli forces escalated sharply on Wednesday, the 200th day of conflict in southern Lebanon’s border area.

Israeli airstrikes created a ring of fire around Lebanese border towns, with at least 14 missiles hitting the area.

In the past two days, military activity in the border region has increased, with Hezbollah targeting areas in northern Acre for the first time in the conflict.

On Wednesday, Israeli strikes hit the outskirts of Aita Al-Shaab, Ramya, Jabal Balat, and Khallet Warda.

The Israeli military said it had destroyed a missile launching pad in Tair Harfa, and targeted Hezbollah infrastructure in Marqaba and Aita Al-Shaab.

Israeli artillery also struck areas of Kafar Shuba and Shehin “to eliminate a potential threat.”

Hezbollah also stepped up its operations, saying this was in retaliation for the “horrific massacre committed by the Israeli enemy in the town of Hanin, causing casualties and injuries among innocent civilians.”

A woman in her 50s and a 12-year-old girl, both members of the same family, were killed in the Israeli airstrike. Six other people were injured.

Hezbollah said it attacked the Shomera settlement with dozens of Katyusha rockets.

The group said it also targeted Israeli troops in Horsh Natawa, and struck the Al-Raheb site with artillery.

It also claimed to have killed and wounded Israeli soldiers in an attack on the Avivim settlement.

Israeli news outlets said that a rocket-propelled grenade hit a house in the settlement, setting the dwelling ablaze.

Hezbollah’s military media said that in the past 200 days of fighting with Israel, 1,998 operations had been carried out from Lebanon, Yemen and Iraq, including 1,637 staged by Hezbollah.