Hunger threat for 40 million across Middle East this Ramadan, says UN

World Food Programme warns of near-famine in Gaza and growing food shortages in Syria, Yemen and Sudan

Children play at a camp for displaced Palestinians in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip. AFP
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The Middle East began Ramadan amid one of its worst food crises in recent years, the UN’s World Food Programme has said, warning that a "severe funding crunch" has hit efforts to ease the situation.

Forty million out of the region’s 400 million people now face acute food insecurity, with 11 million of those people unable to find sufficient food for their families on a daily basis.

In particular, the WFP on Monday highlighted the continuing crisis in Gaza, where “the embattled strip’s entire population are now in desperate need of food assistance, with more than half a million people facing catastrophic hunger and starvation and the risk of famine increasing by the day”.

For months, Gaza has received less than half of its required food supply due to an arduous Israeli approval process for aid lorries, which has pushed the supply down to a trickle. Israel has been widely accused of deliberately withholding food from the enclave of 2.3 million people.

High inflation in Lebanon, Egypt and Iran, the remnants of civil war in Syria and Yemen, and continuing wars in Gaza and Sudan have cancelled out a recent stabilisation of food prices globally.

Food and fuel prices, the latter of which also affects food costs, had been elevated since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – both countries are major grain exporters. That happened as the global economy was still recovering from Covid-19.

But in the past year, prices had begun to stabilise after food-producing regions boosted harvests, according to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, which recorded a drop in its food price index through 2023.

“Despite global food prices easing in recent months, domestic food inflation in countries facing currency devaluation and high inflation will hardly be impacted,” the WFP said.

The UN agency said the combination of armed conflict and domestic economic turmoil in these countries was “toxic”.

Corinne Fleischer, WFP's regional director for the Middle East, North Africa and Eastern Europe, said: “Traditionally a time of generosity where food takes centre stage, Ramadan has become a huge burden on millions across the region who face high food prices that continue unabated while incomes remain stagnant.”

She said conflict and food shortages were “transforming the purposeful religious practice of fasting – the cornerstone of the holy month of Ramadan – to be a harsh daily reality for millions of people”.

Syria was an outlying situation, the WFP said, noting that, in addition to the lingering conflict following years of bloodshed after the 2011 revolt against the rule of Bashar Al Assad, a devastating earthquake had compounded recovery challenges.

Some of the hardest-hit countries – Sudan, Yemen and Syria – are also the hardest-hit by climate change and post-conflict damage. It is an ominous sign for Gaza, which was already suffering a severe water crisis before the current devastating conflict.

"Existing scholarship has pointed out that armed conflict and climate hazards may interact and mutually reinforce to generate vicious cycles," said Paola Vesco, senior researcher in peace and conflict at Sweden's Uppsala University.

"Armed conflict and droughts are some of the biggest drivers of food insecurity and these shocks may compound such that the total impact is larger than the sum of the individual effects. For example, armed conflict may affect access to health infrastructure, deteriorate access to water and sanitation, and force people to flee their homes," she said.

The WFP said many of the worst-affected in the region were "refugees and asylum seekers – at emergency or worse levels of food insecurity". That meant they were struggling to feed themselves or their families.

"In turn, refugees that live in precarious shelters may be more exposed to the impacts of climate shocks such as floods or droughts," Ms Vesco said.

Doug Weir, director at The Conflict and Environment Observatory, agreed that each crisis can add up to a cascade of food security problems.

"Food insecurity, like vulnerability or precarity more broadly, cannot be viewed in isolation. It is always the result of intersecting socio-economic, security and environmental factors," he said.

"Unless we understand all of these drivers, we will fail to tackle its root causes, or to identify effective, sustainable solutions for affected communities."

Climate crisis

Climate change, which has caused water levels to plummet in the Euphrates and sharply curtailed crop output, has worsened the food crisis.

Syria was hit by a massive earthquake in February 2022 which also affected southern Turkey, killing about 60,000 people across both countries. Parts of northern Syria, still prone to conflict between the government, remaining rebel groups and Kurdish militias, were badly hit.

“An additional 780,000 people are now food insecure, bringing the total number of food insecure people in the country to 12.9 million,” the WFP said.

Eckart Woertz, director of the Giga Institute for Middle East Studies and author of Oil for Food: The Global Food Crisis and the Middle East, said that aside from climate change and natural disasters, food shortages were mainly failures of governance.

“The Mena region is food import dependent and will always be for lack of water, but that is not the reason for its food insecurity," he said. "All famines are manmade, caused by social inequality or political machinations like in Syria, Yemen, Sudan and now Gaza."

Finally, the Syrian pound has collapsed amid sanctions, damage from the conflict to productive sectors and high levels of corruption. Lebanon has also been hit by hyperinflation, a crisis largely blamed on gross mismanagement and corruption among the ruling elite.

Peter Harling, who has worked with NGOs and international organisations in the Middle East, said one reason for mounting food insecurity in the region was the gradual collapse of state involvement in the agricultural sector, which has left a vacuum.

"Agriculture in the region doesn't feed societies. It is split between capitalistic agriculture focused on cash crops to export, on one hand, and small scale farming that barely covers the needs of farmers themselves, on the other."

"Regimes have relied heavily on imports to feed their societies, switching from what used to be state-subsidised agriculture to a market-based approach that hands all costs down to customers. As economies collapse, that is leading directly to malnutrition at best," he says.

Inflation has also stalked the region: it is at 70 per cent in Turkey, and at 39 per cent in Iran and Egypt, which has also faced a 48 per cent drop in the value of its currency.

The WFP says its work to help 30 million people across the region has had to be cut back amid a severe funding shortfall.

“Limited humanitarian funding adds to the struggles of millions in the region, with WFP unable to maintain its level of assistance in several countries, leaving vulnerable populations without vital food,” added Ms Fleischer.

“Cutting assistance will have untold consequences for millions and is jeopardising years of work fighting hunger and malnutrition and we already see alarming levels of food insecurity.”

Updated: March 12, 2024, 1:32 PM