Conflict is the main factor behind spread of hunger in NENA region: FAO

Mohammed El-Said
15 Min Read
AbdulHakim Elwaer, the FAO’s Assistant Director-General

As one of the most involved UN organisations in the region, the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) is hyperactive in several vital topics, such as climate change, water resources, agriculture, food security, and transboundary pests. 

Daily News Egypt interviewed AbdulHakim Elwaer, the FAO’s Assistant Director-General and Regional Representative for the Near East and North Africa (NENA), to better understand the role and activities of the organisation in the region. 

In light of your latest report, how widespread are hunger and malnutrition in the Arab region?

The number of malnourished people in the region reached 69m in 2020, which is equivalent to 15.8% of the population. This figure represents a 91.1% increase from the start of the millennium; close to the peak reached in 2011 when the region suffered a major shock as a result of the Arab Spring. 

Hunger rose across all income levels in both conflict-affected and stable countries. Somalia and Yemen specifically — two conflict-affected, low-income countries — had the highest levels of malnourishment in the region in 2020.

Moderate to severe food insecurity also continued its upward trend, affecting an estimated 141m people during 2020, an increase of more than 10m people from the previous year. Thus, about 32.3% — or roughly a third of the region’s population — did not have regular access to adequate and nutritious food in 2020.

What are the causes of the problem of hunger in the Arab region and the drivers that exacerbate it? And what are the obstacles that hinder the FAO’s work in this regard?

Conflict is the main factor behind the spread of hunger, but the slow progress towards achieving the United Nations’ sustainable development goals (SDGs) targeting nutrition is due to weak food systems across the region. 

Apart from conflicts, food systems in the region are also affected by other shocks, such as those related to climate and macroeconomics, the food price crisis, oil price volatility, declining tourism revenues, as well as health crises like the coronavirus pandemic.

A number of pressures — such as water scarcity, dependence on food imports, inequality, rapid population growth and migration, and the transformation of food systems associated with the transition from rural to urban areas — negatively impact food systems and increase food production. 

The lack of resilience of food systems exposed to various shocks and stresses compounds the damage and negatively affects food security and nutrition.

I see that the greatest threat to agriculture and food systems in our region is climate change and water shortage in particular. Given that the region already has the lowest annual per capita share of drinking water, global warming and desertification of arable land will exacerbate this risk. 

Another threat to agri-food systems in the region is the increasing population and demand for food (both quantity and quality), in addition to the rapid urbanisation in our region; we may not be able to meet these demands with the resources we currently have.

During your participation in the fourth edition of Cairo Water Week, you mentioned that a “common vision has been reached to define the parameters of dealing with water scarcity and issues in the region.” What are the most prominent features of this vision? Did it produce results on the ground? 

At the FAO, we have recognised the need for collaboration between governments, development partners, and other stakeholders in order to achieve the progress we are aiming for. 

In this regard, the Regional Initiative on Water Scarcity was developed based on a collaborative strategy and was launched in 2013 in collaboration with 17 partner organisations, who signed a pledge demonstrating their great interest and willingness to work together, drawing on their shared knowledge and resources within an effective and practical regional partnership. 

As for the stakeholders, we believe that under the leadership of states, all development partners, civil society organisations, the academic community, the international donor community, and others should be involved in discussions to identify appropriate solutions that may vary according to the social, economic, environmental, and political environment in these countries.

How can the FAO contribute to solving, confronting, or mitigating the effects of water scarcity in the region?

The FAO has helped many countries meet the challenge of water scarcity by adopting institutional reforms, which has resulted in strengthening the capacity for strategic water resource planning using effective tools, such as water accounting and water assessment, by enhancing water productivity within the limits of sustainable water resources.

Coordination between the water and agriculture sectors is a reality. At the regional level, for example, the FAO — in cooperation with the League of Arab States — helped convene the Councils of Ministers of Water and Agriculture jointly to discuss issues overlapping between the two sectors with the aim of “increasing the yield of every drop.” 

The guidelines for allocating water for agriculture have been endorsed by the Joint Ministerial Council, and this will certainly have a clear positive impact once they are adopted by countries in the region.

The FAO had a role in “rehabilitating the agricultural sector” in the region, what are the most prominent projects or programmes implemented by the organisation on the ground?

The FAO participates in developing a family-based approach to the development of agricultural systems and recognises the necessity of integrating farmers, who in turn play a central role in defining and implementing programmes in accordance with the agreed-upon agricultural development method. 

Development through agricultural systems is considered a multi-field method that facilitates the process of linking actors and the agricultural development process, which emphasises the role of agricultural families and their members in identifying problems, needs, and goals.

There are agricultural development programmes and systems that are more appropriate for countries facing conflicts such as Yemen and Syria, which require rapid intervention to meet the needs of the besieged population and confront the crisis. 

As for the more stable countries, the projects aim to participate in achieving sustainability and long-term sufficiency.

To what extent has the pandemic affected the achievement of food security and the provision of food commodities in the region?

The COVID-19 pandemic has revealed the need for urgent change in our path. It is becoming more and more difficult for farmers — who are already struggling with climate variability and extremes — to sell their crops at a time when more and more city dwellers are forced to turn to food banks due to increasing poverty, and millions of people are in need of emergency food assistance. 

We need sustainable food and agricultural systems that can feed up to 10bn people by 2050.

There are solutions, however, including urging governments to reorient policies or adopt new policies that promote sustainable production of nutritious, affordable foods and increase farmer participation.

On 17 January, you met with the Secretary-General and Executive Director of the Tahya Misr Fund to discuss cooperation in reducing food loss and waste and supporting livelihoods and rural transformation in Egypt. What are the broad lines of the agreement between the organisation and the fund? How can cooperation happen and what are the roles of each party?

During our meeting with the officials of the Tahya Misr Fund (Long Live Egypt Fund), we reviewed activities that can improve the quality of life in the countryside, as well as the presidential initiatives implemented by the fund in the areas of health care and economic development for the most vulnerable families, along with efforts to confront the repercussions of the pandemic. 

These are commendable efforts that contribute to the achievement of the FAO’s objectives in rural transformation processes and thus the goal of Zero Hunger.

It was also agreed that there would be cooperation between the fund and the FAO to support livelihoods, improve the quality of life, and provide flexible tools for economic development in the Egyptian countryside. 

The discussion also touched on supporting the organisation’s programme in the field of reducing food loss and waste at the local and regional levels within the framework of the partnership between the Egyptian government, civil society organisations, and the private sector.

Furthermore, we agreed to develop axes and ideas for programmes for the good use of food in Arab countries, in which the proportion of organic waste reaches about 80%, which means that it can be used to improve agriculture, and thus improve livelihoods in the Egyptian countryside.

The organisation is also exerting efforts to enhance the role of urban society to reduce the effects of the pandemic on the lives of Egyptian citizens.

Additionally, there are several other axes of cooperation, including raising awareness of the dangers of the effects of climate change, especially since Egypt is about to host the UN Conference of Parties on Climate Change (COP 27) by the end of this year.

How does the FAO contribute to helping countries in the region combat transboundary pests? What are the most prominent of these pests that threaten the region?

The Emergency Prevention System for Animal Health Programme, which builds on animal health and locust control programmes, has expanded to cover plant pests and diseases, aquatic diseases, food safety, and forest health in one framework. 

Each component of the programme has yielded positive results, as support has been expanded, particularly for Fall Armyworm and Red Palm Weevil.

In 2021, the organisation launched new training activities within the framework of its regional emergency response project to combat Fall Armyworm in the Near East and North Africa — specifically Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, in addition to the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. 

At the same time, the FAO established IPM Farmer Field Schools in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip that organise training programmes for farmers explaining IPM components and plans to enhance their capabilities to manage Fall Armyworm.

The FAO is also developing simple but effective tools to help farmers better control and manage the Red Palm Weevil.

What are your preparations for the organisation’s regional conference that will be held in Baghdad? And what will be the main issues that will be discussed at the conference?

The 36th session of the FAO’s Near East Regional Conference (NERC 36) is being held this year under the title ‘Recovery and Restart: Innovation for Better, Greener, and Resilient Agri-food Systems to Achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.”

Iraq will host the conference across two sessions, the first of which has already been held and included a virtual meeting of senior officials from 10 to 13 January 2022; while the ministerial session will be held with actual and virtual attendance from 7 to 8 February 2022.

During the conference, ministers of agriculture, partner organisations, agencies, and senior officials from member states will meet to discuss regional challenges and priorities in the region, ensuring the effectiveness of the FAO’s influence in the region and helping identify priorities for its work over the next two years.

These priorities will be identified through participation in roundtable discussions and panel discussions with all member states to identify the best practices for transforming food systems and achieving the SDGs.

On 7 February, a series of round table sessions will be held to discuss several issues important for the future of agri-food systems in the region. 

As for February 8, a side event will be held discussing climate action and regional opportunities in the framework of the upcoming COP 27 and COP 28 that will be held in Egypt and the UAE.

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Mohammed El-Said is the Science Editor for the Daily News Egypt with over 8 years of experience as a journalist. His work appeared in the Science Magazine, Nature Middle East, Scientific American Arabic Edition, SciDev and other regional and international media outlets. El-Said graduated with a bachelor's degree and MSc in Human Geography, and he is a PhD candidate in Human Geography at Cairo University. He also had a diploma in media translation from the American University in Cairo.