Wars, Covid and currency crashes drive Middle East hunger spike, UN warns

More than a tenth of the world’s population was undernourished last year amid multiple crises

Displaced Yemeni children stand next to their family's share of emergency food aid provided by a local relief agency. EPA
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The UN warned on Monday that the Covid-19 pandemic, depreciating currencies and conflicts in Yemen, Syria and elsewhere caused big rises in the number of people facing hunger and food insecurity across the Middle East.

Arif Husain, chief economist for the World Food Programme (WFP), described rising food prices in war-ravaged Syria and Yemen and amid double-digit inflation in Lebanon, making it harder for families to put food on the table.

“We have to be concerned about these things coming together to create a situation which then fuels conflict,” Mr Husain told The National.

He spoke upon the release of a UN report that found the pandemic and other threats had led to an estimated 18 per cent increase in the number of people facing hunger around the world.

More than 800 million people — nearly 12 per cent of the global population — were undernourished in 2020, added the 236-page document, the State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World.

Hunger levels likely reached their highest in 15 years as the coronavirus crossed borders and shuttered economies, causing massive layoffs, supply-chain problems and driving up prices, researchers said.

“The situation in the Middle East … is exacerbated and has increased the situation of chronic undernourishment and also the problem of access to healthy diets,” said Maximo Torero, chief economist of the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

Climate change, economic downturns and war are drivers of food insecurity and malnutrition and they are increasing in frequency and intensity, said food expert Emily Farr from the charity Oxfam.

“These new figures are a sombre reminder of how broken our global food and economic systems are,” Ms Farr said.

“More than half the world’s population did not have social protection to cope with the adverse effects of the pandemic.”

The report was jointly published by WFP, WHO, FAO, the International Fund for Agricultural Development, and the UN agency for children, Unicef.

UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres on Monday urged world leaders to attend a summit on food security during the annual UN assembly at the end of September to tackle rising global hunger levels.

“In a world of plenty, we have no excuse for billions of people to lack access to a healthy diet,” Mr Guterres said in a statement.

Updated: July 12, 2021, 5:58 PM