A new report prepared by United Nations (UN) organisations gas warned that the continuous rise in hunger in the Arab region threatens efforts to achieve the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
This includes the region’s potential failure to reach the goal of ending hunger, the report noted, from which more than 51 million people in the Arab region suffer.
The Arab region ranked second in the world in terms of the prevalence of adult obesity in 2019, with 27% of the adult population suffering from obesity.
This was in addition to high rates of undernutrition and micronutrient deficiencies, especially among school-age children and adults.
Estimates for 2019 indicate that prior to the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, 51.4 million people were suffering from hunger. The figure is equivalent to 12.2% of the region’s total population, and reflects an increase of 1.1 million people over the previous period.
The numbers of people affected by moderate or severe food insecurity also showed an upward trend, with about 137 million people in 2019 unable to obtain sufficient and nutritious food on a continuous basis.
Abdelhakim El-Waer, Assistant Director-General of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the organisation’s Regional Representative for the Near East and North Africa (NENA) region, said the region is not on the right track required to achieve the second Sustainable Development Goal on Zero Hunger.
If recent trends continue, the number of people affected by hunger will exceed 75 million by 2030. The impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the region’s economy will exacerbate the problem.
The report was jointly prepared by: the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO); the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA); the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD); the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF); the World Food Program (WFP); and the World Health Organization (WHO).
In media statements, Al-Waer said that estimates for 2019 indicate that 22.5% of children under the age of five suffer from stunted growth, 9.2% suffer from wasting, and 9.9% suffer from being overweight.
Anaemia, which is estimated to affect 35% of women of childbearing age, is a moderate public health problem in most countries of the region.
As for wasting, only seven out of 22 countries are on the right track, while only three out of 22 are on track with tackling stunting or childhood obesity.
None of the countries in the region are on the right track to achieve the 2025 World Health Assembly targets on the prevalence of anaemia among women of childbearing age (reducing it in half) or obesity among adults (stopping it).
The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on food security and nutrition have also varied, with countries with fragile economies and countries experiencing protracted crises being the most affected. The prevalence of undernourishment ranges between 25-30% in those countries experiencing conflict.
The report pointed out that Egypt has witnessed an improvement regarding undernourishment, which improved the general results of the region due to its population density relative to other countries in the region.
This is evident by the report’s expectation that the prevalence of undernourishment in countries experiencing conflict will reach 30%, compared to nearly 8% in other countries.
As for the causes of the problem, Al-Waer said that conflicts represent the most significant reasons for doubling the problem of hunger. The slow progress towards achieving the targets of the Sustainable Development Goals on nutrition, however, is also due to the weakness of food systems in the region.
These systems have also been affected by: climate-related shocks; macroeconomics such as the food price crisis; and the volatility of food prices; oil prices; declining tourism revenues; as well as health shocks, such as the COVID-19 pandemic.
There are also many factors that exacerbate the problem, such as water scarcity, dependence on food imports, inequality including the gender dimension and rapid population growth, and migration.
They are also affected by the transformation of food systems associated with the transition from rural to urban areas, which are negatively impacting the food systems and increase their vulnerability.
Al-Waer explained that more than 50% of the region’s population cannot afford to adopt healthy diets, which is higher than the global average of 38%.
UN statistics indicate that 45% of deaths among children under the age of five, equivalent to 3.1 million children each year, are caused by malnutrition.
According to WHO statistics in 2018, 149 million children under the age of five, or 22% of the world’s population under five, suffer from chronic malnutrition.
According to the report’s estimates, the adoption of healthy diets in the Arab region could lead to a 96% reduction in diet-related health costs according to current consumption, and a 34 to 77% reduction in the social costs associated with the diet, i.e. the cost incurred on greenhouse gas emissions in 2030.
To increase the resilience of food systems in the region, the report recommends embarking on a fundamental transformation towards a sustainable and equitable food system.
This would focus on the problem of malnutrition and having a deeper understanding of its complex causes, whilst adopting a context-specific approach to food security and nutrition at the individual, household, class and regional levels.
The report also urged the need to adopt a formal framework for the food system through which the various components, drivers and results of this system can be studied, including environmental, economic and social considerations, food security and nutrition.