The United Nations has warned that hunger across the Arab world has increased by 91.1 percent over the past two decades.

An estimated 32.3 percent of the Arab population did not have access to adequate food in 2020, with 10 million more people reporting food insecurity than the previous year.

A new report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) published on Thursday found that nearly 141 million people across Arab countries experienced moderate or severe food insecurity last year.

Since 2000, hunger across the Arab world has increased by 91.1 percent, affecting all income levels as well as both conflict-struck countries and countries at peace.

Jean Marc Faures, FAO’s Regional Programme Leader for the Near East and North Africa, told TRT World that the on-going Covid-19 pandemic has added an “additional burden to an already difficult situation in many countries.”

“Most of 2021 has still seen major disruptions in many sectors due to Covid, with, for instance, major logistical problems related to transportation of food, and in general inflation and increase in the price of major food commodities,” said Faures. 

“All these factors do not help the situation in a region that is also very much exposed to food prices on the global market,” he added.

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Higher rates than global averages

The report said 69 million people in the region, or 16 percent of the population, were undernourished in 2020 - an increase of 4.8 million people compared to 2019.

Out of the 22 Arab states examined in the study, Somalia and Yemen had the highest levels of undernourishment from 2018 to 2020.

Nearly 60 percent of Somalis struggled with hunger and more than 45 percent of Yemenis were undernourished.

Adult obesity also remains a serious issue in the Arab world, where it is more than double the global average.

Faures said that while data for 2021 is difficult to predict, “because many factors play a role in hunger and food insecurity,” FOA continues to monitor the situation. 

“While it is still very early to get the full picture, we believe that the economic impacts of the restrictions imposed in many countries to combat Covid-19 have had detrimental effects on the most vulnerable part of the population,” said Facures.

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Consequences of conflict

Conflict was the leading cause for hunger in the region, which affected a reported 53.4 million people, according to the study.

Hunger rates were more than six times higher in countries and areas affected by conflict than countries at peace, according to the study.

“It is important to note that there is a large difference between the food security situation in countries in conflict and in crisis than in non-conflict countries. Conflict remains a major source of food insecurity,” said Faures 

Other causes cited were social unrest, poverty, inequality, climate change, and scarce natural resources.

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Children at risk

The FAO report found that 20.5 percent of Arab children under the age of five were stunted and 7.8 percent wasted in 2020. 

The prevalence of stunting (reduced growth rate in human development) improved from 2000 which saw a high of 28.7 percent of children affected. 

Meanwhile, wasting (becoming weaker and more emaciated) in the Arab region was higher than the global average of 6.7 percent.

Both wasting and stunting in children was highest in conflict-affected countries compared to non-conflict countries. 

In contrast, 10.7 percent of children under five years old in the Arab world were overweight in 2020, nearly double the global average of 5.7 percent and up from 9.4 percent in 2000.

Childhood overweight levels were highest in Libya at 25.4 percent of children affected, followed by Lebanon at 19.7 percent and Syria at 18.2 percent.

In fact, only five countries in the region displayed a low prevalence of childhood obesity: Mauritania, Sudan, Somalia, Yemen and Oman.

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High obesity and anemia rates

Low-income countries in the region reported significantly higher rates of malnutrition with 35.6 million undernourished people compared to high-income countries at 3 million people. 

In contrast, the study found that high-income countries in the region reported higher rates of adult obesity compared to lower-income countries.

The FAO report found that 28.8 percent of Arab adults were obese in 2020, compared to the global average of 13.1 percent.

The Arab nation is the third highest region for obesity in the world, just behind Australia and New Zealand at 30.7 percent, and Northern America at 36.7 percent. 

In addition, the prevalence of anemia in Arab women between the ages of 15 to 49 rose to 33.5 percent in 2020, higher than the global average of 29.9 percent.

Yemen reported the highest levels of anaemia, with over 60 percent of women affected.

“The prevalence of anaemia in women of reproductive age has declined in 19 out of 22 Arab States in the past two decades. The exceptions are Jordan, Lebanon and Tunisia where it has increased,” the study said.

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SDG targets

Even before the Covid-19 pandemic hit, the UN warned that the Arab World was not on track to meet its Zero Hunger goal as part of the organisation’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) 

The study warned that it will be “enormously difficult for the region to achieve” its hunger and nutrition-related SDG targets by 2030.

“Efforts made to achieve food security and nutrition targets in the region have stalled and are not likely to improve due to economic disruptions caused by Covid-19,” said the study.

The Arab World has struggled with combating hunger and food insecurity due to pre-existing vulnerabilities including poverty, inequality, conflict and climate change, the study said.

Moderate or severe food insecurity affected 32.3 percent of the Arab region’s population in 2020, higher than the global average of 30.4 percent.

Similar trends can be observed across multiple regions of the world due to the pandemic, particularly affecting less developed countries, Faures said.

“We also see that the less developed countries had difficulties in putting together the safety nets that were needed to protect their population. So the pandemic affects less developed countries proportionally more than developed  countries,” he said.

Around 45 percent of the people in low-income economies were severely or moderately food insecure in 2020, compared to 19.3 percent in high-income economies. 

The report serves as a stark warning to all countries in the Arab World and beyond to step up their efforts in eliminating hunger and combating food insecurity.

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