The self-immolation by a young Tunisian vegetable seller is widely regarded as the beginning of the historic changes rippling through the Arab world. While this event has sparked unprecedented uprisings and led to the “Arab awakening” and “Arab Spring,” it is clear that the causes of the unrest run deep and have accumulated over time. Most people agree that a combination of factors, including political, sociological and economic factors, played a role. Dealing with the root causes of the uprisings—including food insecurity combined with high unemployment and inequalities—will be the keys for a prosperous future for Arab countries directly and indirectly affected by the Arab Spring.
Food Security in MENA
Recent IFPRI research classifies MENA countries according to their risk of food insecurity into five categories: low, moderate, serious, alarming, or extremely alarming. The Gulf States including Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and United Arab Emirates display a low risk of food insecurity. Iran, Libya, Tunisia, and Turkey exhibit moderate risk of food insecurity, whereas all other countries show serious, alarming, or extremely alarming levels of food insecurity risks. The countries expressed as being at the highest levels of risk are Yemen, Djibouti, and Somalia, followed by Mauritania and Sudan.
Arab Spatial Development and Food Security Atlas
Macroeconomic and household levels
Because MENA countries are highly exposed to global food price volatility, natural disasters, increasing water scarcity, and conflicts, macroeconomic balances and people’s welfare are at a constant risk of being impacted by these issues. Whereas the macro-level aspect involves key elements of macroeconomic stability, economic growth, and governance, the micro-level aspect comprises household access to food and assets and services needed to reach a healthy individual nutritional status. Key sectors for improving food security are trade and infrastructure, water, agriculture, health and education.
Trade and Infrastructure
Given the region’s high dependency on food imports and projected increases in food price volatility, functioning international and national trade is crucial for food security in MENA countries. According to two recent IFPRI publications concerning trade liberalization in MENA and the prevention of recurring global food crises, solutions have to be found at international and national levels, including improving existing trade regimes, domestic programs, and by bettering the design and management of grain reserves.
Water and agriculture
MENA is the most water-constrained region in the world, and water scarcity is likely to worsen sharply by 2050. Decreased water availability limits agricultural potential and leads to competition between water use in agriculture (which uses up to 90 percent of all water), industrial use, and use for human consumption. The Nile Basin, for example, is spread over 10 countries that are fraught with poverty, and water allocation issues may increase instability and conflict in the future.
Health, education and nutrition
Improving health and education services, reforming social security systems from subsidies to targeted transfer systems, fostering gender equality, and reducing population growth are key challenges for improving food security in MENA. Child malnutrition is widespread in MENA countries. IFPRI research in Yemen has shown that 59.4 of children aged 0-59 months were stunted, suggesting potentially grave effects for the health and productivity of future generations. Social protection and nutrition programs targeted to the food insecure and poor, such as food aid or school feeding programs, are thus also crucial.
Emerging challenges: climate change and conflict resolution
Predicted warming in the MENA region, combined with the high likelihood of overall declines in precipitation, makes the region particularly vulnerable to climate change. Projections also suggest that climate will cause world food prices to rise with negative effects on food security. For example, a recent IFPRI publication for Syria shows that global and local effects of climate change are also expected to have long term effects on economy-wide growth and the incomes of both rural and urban households. Water scarcity may also exacerbate conflicts in a region that already exhibits the highest number and intensity of conflicts in the world. Evidence shows that countries in political transition (such as Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya) are often at the highest risk of entering conflict. Two important interlinked research questions that need to be answered in this context are: what are the major causes of conflicts in Arab countries? And, what measures can rectify these causes?