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CAIRO – The Muslim holy month of Ramadan begins this year amidst a persistent food security crisis throughout the Middle East and North Africa driven by conflict, economic challenges, and climate change, a toxic combination pushing millions to the edge, the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) said on Monday.

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. 

“We get into Ramadan with the region with the worst food crisis in its recent history in the Gaza Strip,” says WFP regional director for Middle East, North Africa, and Eastern Europe Corinne Fleischer. “At the same time, in other countries, protracted conflicts and economic crises are 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.”

More than 40 million people across the region experience acute levels of food insecurity, including more than 11.7 million people – many of them refugees and asylum seekers – at emergency or worse levels of food insecurity (IPC 4 & 5) in six countries. This means they cannot afford enough food that is also nutritious for themselves and their families on any given day of the year.   

Six months into the Gaza crisis, 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 (IPC Phase 5) and the risk of famine increasing by the day.

In Syria, hunger lingers following years of conflict and consecutive economic and climate shocks, compounded by the aftermath of the earthquakes in February 2023. An additional 780,000 people are now food insecure, bringing the total number of food insecure people in the country to 12.9 million. Sudan and Yemen also remain among the ten countries with the highest number of acutely food-insecure people in the world.

Despite global food prices easing in recent months, domestic food inflation in countries facing currency devaluation and high inflation will hardly be impacted. Five countries in the region are among the ten that registered the highest food inflation globally in January 2024. Lebanon and Syria face triple-digit food inflation at 138 percent and 106 percent, respectively, while food inflation in Turkey was 70 percent, Iran 39 percent and Egypt 48 percent.

Food prices skyrocketed as many countries in the region are dealing with crippling budget deficits, high levels of public debt, currency devaluation, and dangerous levels of inflation. Stubbornly high prices, weak currencies, and depleted foreign currency reserves affect the import-dependent region, while conflict and a deepening climate crisis hold back food production.

The region's heavy reliance on imports has exposed it to fluctuations in global food prices, exacerbated by the war in Ukraine and supply chain disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and natural disasters. In 2024, supply chain disruptions caused by hostilities in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden also push shipping costs up and the prospect of further food and fuel price increases.

According to data available to WFP, the prices of staple foods in January 2024, the average price of vegetable oil and rice in the region was the highest globally among monitored countries, while wheat came second. 

Gaza, Yemen, the West Bank and Iraq are among the 10 countries with the highest average rice and vegetable oil prices of the countries monitored worldwide. The price of 1 litre of vegetable oil is the highest in Gaza at US$8.32, followed by Yemen at US$5.19 per 1 litre. In Yemen, a 1kg bag of rice costs an average of US$5.82 in January – the most expensive among the countries where prices are monitored – and US$1.94 in Gaza, making it the third most expensive. 

Aiming to reach over 30 million people with food and nutrition assistance in 2024, WFP's efforts to address food insecurity in MENA region are being curtailed by a severe funding crunch. 

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

In 2023 and through 2024, WFP had to implement a progressive reduction in the size of food rations, the value of electronic vouchers, the number of people receiving assistance and the frequency of distributions in several countries across the region. This has impacted conflict-affected people, refugees, and internally displaced people in Yemen, Syria, Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon, Algeria, Libya, and Iraq.



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Posted on : Tuesday, March 12, 2024  
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