The world has seen several food crises over the past century. The most recent one took place in 2010-2012 and was caused by a spike in food prices, which led to unrest and social unrest in more than 30 countries. This prompted the World Bank, International Monetary Fund and other global leaders to convene the High-Level Task Force on Food Security and Nutrition in June 2012. In its final report, known as the “New York Declaration” or “Agenda for Action,” the task force called for an unprecedented global response to mitigate the risk of future crises. Since then, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has exacerbated the crisis already fueled by climate change, soaring costs of living and a fertilizer price hike that is creating the most acute global food crisis in decades.
The potential for increased food scarcity resulting from climate change is perhaps most clearly evident in the Middle East, where the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts a significant reduction in rainfall and a rise in average temperatures over the next century. The Middle East has long been at risk of water stress and food scarcity. This has been exacerbated by unsustainable water management practices, particularly in the agricultural sector. The region has already surpassed the global average in terms of water scarcity and per capita water availability. The potential for increased food scarcity resulting from climate change is perhaps most clearly evident in the Middle East, where the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts a significant reduction in rainfall and a rise in average temperatures over the next century. Droughts and water scarcity resulting from climate change are projected to reduce agricultural yields, particularly in the region’s most important growing areas. Countries in this region also have significant food import requirements, and climate change could reduce the availability and lower the price of imported foods.
Rapid urbanization is putting extra pressure on water and food security in the Middle East. The urban population of the region is projected to increase from 40 per cent in 2011 to over 60 per cent by 2030. Some of the biggest cities in the world, such as Cairo, Damascus, Baghdad, and Tehran, are located in the Middle East, where living in cities is a relatively new phenomenon. However, the Middle East’s cities are some of the least equipped in the world to cope with future population growth and changing consumption patterns. With no fully functional water or sanitation systems, they are particularly vulnerable to the impact of climate change. Water scarcity is one of the key drivers of food insecurity, particularly in urban areas where the majority of the region’s population lives. The Middle East uses about 7.5 billion cubic meters of water per year for irrigation or 60 per cent of its renewable water resources.
Climate change will likely have significant effects on agriculture and food security in the Middle East. Some of the region’s most important crops, such as wheat, barley, and potatoes, are expected to experience reduced yields due to rising temperatures and increased frequency of extreme weather events, such as floods and droughts. Climate change is also expected to reduce the availability and lower the price of imported foods. These effects will be particularly strong in the Middle East’s most important agricultural regions, including the Nile Valley in Egypt, the Tigris and Euphrates river basins in Iraq, the Jordan Valley, and the Iranian plateau. Some of the region’s countries have high rates of net importers of food and are expected to be negatively affected by the drop in food availability and price. This includes Iran and Iraq, two of the most important agricultural producers in the region, as well as Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen, which import more than 80 per cent of their food.
The Middle East is also experiencing a significant increase in internal and cross-border displacement of people due to war, violence, and persecution. This has a critical impact on food security, in particular for the most vulnerable people in society. The region has seen a dramatic rise in refugees and internally displaced people, with the Syrian conflict alone estimated to have pushed more than 12 million people from their homes. This is having a significant impact on neighbouring countries, which are struggling to provide enough food to feed their own people, let alone welcome large numbers of displaced people.
Moscow’s war in Ukraine has severely impacted global food markets, forcing humanitarian agencies to slash food rations in countries like Yemen, one of the Middle East’s poorest countries. Rising energy prices and volatility in the food markets have also put extra pressure on cash-strapped developing countries. In Lebanon, also a large importer of Russian and Ukrainian wheat, real food inflation has been running at 122 per cent. Domestic food price inflation is high in almost all low- and middle-income countries, according to the World Bank.
The Middle East’s food security challenges are further compounded by several other factors, including poor governance and weak social and economic infrastructure. Poverty, urbanization, lack of access to water, poor soil quality, and inadequate agricultural practices are just some of the challenges that countries in the region face. There have been episodes of violent unrest in the Middle East over food price hikes and shortages in the past, such as in 2007-2008, and there has been talk of potential future food crises in this region. All of these factors point to a heightened risk of a food crisis in the region, which could have far-reaching consequences for global food security. As such, global leaders must redouble their efforts to mitigate the risk of future crises and ensure a more sustainable and resilient future, both in their own countries and throughout the world.
Many of the issues that plague the region today are somewhat solvable if global leaders recognize the risks and take action to build more sustainable food systems. If they don’t, the world risks a future where food is increasingly scarce and expensive, leading to social unrest and instability around the globe. We must be prepared for a future that is more challenging so that we can ensure everyone has access to safe, nutritious food.