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Finding a road to stability in the arab region

Finding a road to stability in the arab region

Dr. Mahmoud Solh, Director General, ICARDA

The upheavals in the Arab region over the past three years have been the culmination of several factors, but it’s hard to ignore some hard-hitting facts on the status of food security and unemployment in the region – perhaps even suggestive of a crisis that was simmering for a while. 

The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region has one of the highest unemployment rates in the world – in fact youth unemployment is 80 percent higher than the world average. Based on IFAD data, the current unemployment rate among young aged 18-29 years ranges from 18 percent in Morocco to 24 percent in Egypt, up to an alarming 48 percent in Syria and 53 percent in Yemen. 

Most countries in the region are also at grave risk of food insecurity, excepting the oil-rich countries which constitute less than 10 percent of the region’s total population. The MENA region is the largest food importer in the world – in 2010, the region imported 65.8 million tons of cereals compared to Asia’s 58.8 million tons – despite the huge difference in their populations. 

A large chunk of these imports is wheat – a staple diet in most Arab countries. The street riots in Egypt, Morocco and Yemen in 2008 following the sharp rise in wheat prices during the global food crisis is a reminder that in situations where other grievances already exist, food insecurity is a known trigger point for human conflict.  

In our years of research alongside national partners, ICARDA found that sustainable increases in food productivity – even with the region’s scarce natural resources – is not only well within reach, but also potentially transformative. 

In Arab countries, actual farm yields of crops are far below their potential – a gap that offers a huge opportunity to boost self-sufficiency in the region, as was demonstrated in Syria. A combination of improved wheat varieties with enhanced water management, timely inputs, and appropriate policies was able to transition the country from net wheat importer to wheat exporter. 

Another project aiming to enhance food security in region, supported by the Arab Fund for Economic and Social Development (AFESD), the Kuwaiti Fund for Economic Arab Development and the Islamic Development Bank (IDB), showed average wheat increases from 25 percent up to 75 percent in three years across seven Arab countries. 

Water is another flashpoint for conflict in the Arab region – the most coveted natural resource in the dry areas. In MENA, irrigation consumes 80-90 percent of all fresh water consumed. With climate change and growing population pressures in the region, water extraction rates are rising while groundwater levels are falling. Although the global average for per capita water availability is 8,900 m3, it’s only 1,100 m3 in the Arab region, and is estimated to drop further to 550 m3 by 2050 – a disastrous scenario for sustaining the region’s growing population.

Technologies, along with policy and institutional interventions can turn around this trend by improving water productivity in agriculture. Interventions like switching to raised bed farming, modifying cropping patterns, and using supplemental irrigation in rainfed areas and macro- and micro-water catchments in low-rainfall areas, have demonstrated substantial gains in water productivity – both at farm and basin levels. 

Events like the turmoil in some Arab countries and the 2008 global food crisis should be heeded for underlying causes so future risks can be reduced and livelihoods secured for the region’s vulnerable population. The soaring commodity prices and shortage of food supplies experienced during the food crisis understandably raised serious food security concerns in all Arab countries.  

Governments placed investments in agriculture high in their national priorities in an effort to enhance food self-sufficiency.  In the past, the only Arab fund that invested in agriculture development was the AFESD. Now other Arab agencies, such as the IDB and the Kuwait Fund are investing for the first time in agriculture and food security – a promising development. But far more concerted efforts are needed. 

A long-term, multi-sector regional strategy is needed to address the complex challenges facing the Arab region – low productivity and scarce natural resources, which are predicted to deteriorate even further with climate change and the rapidly rising demand for food. 

Such an investment opens a path to infusing the rural communities in the region with a much needed stabilizing force – where people are food secure, rural livelihoods are improved, and youth gainfully employed from a thriving agriculture sector. 

This blog, written by ICARDA's Director General, Dr. Mahmoud Solh, first appeared on the website of the Arab Spatial, an online spatial database to help decision makers accurately identify areas more vulnerable to climate change. The tool has been developed by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI).